It was with a certain amount of sadness that I saw Kevin Youkilis play his last game at Fenway Park this past Sunday, June 26. Although I only met him one time on a Red Sox Cruise in January of 2004, I have felt an emotional bond with him. In particular, he is Jewish, and there simply are not a great number of Jewish players that have made it to the big leagues. He also was a modest guy who was just beginning to make his presence on the Red Sox team. I found it quite easy to talk to him as he was not at all distant. We talked about his desire to play third base for the Sox though, at that time, Bill Mueller was starting. I wondered, but more to myself, than to Kevin, whether he could play any other position in the infield. Little did either of us know that he would shift to accommodate Mike Lowe, who was obtained with Josh Beckett from the Florida Marlins, from third base to first base.
I remember the sports’ announcers saying that Youk had not committed an error in so many games it was nearing a record when he played first base. Furthermore, it was evident that he had proven his versatility and value to the Red Sox in his ability to play two positions, first and third base, with equal poise. And yes, I remember that first at bat by Kevin when he hit the home run in Toronto and his parents beamed with pride at him back in May of 2004. I also remember his teammates, led by Pedro Martinez, giving him, a rookie with his first hit, a home run, the customary initial silent treatment in the dugout and then, with a sudden burst of humor and enthusiasm congratulating him.
Kevin, himself, would admit that he did not have the natural talent of some of the greats such as Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter, but his determination to work extra hard at his craft would make him comparable to the best of ball players. His determination was inspiring and it showed in his efforts to make some great fielding plays, typically having him wind up with a outfit covered brown with the dirt of the infield.
Kevin was the lone Sox with David Ortiz left that had been on the two World Series winning teams of 2004 (the greatest of years) and 2007 when he played first base with Mike Lowe at third base. In 2011, he and Dustin Pedroia and other players were stymied with injuries. We all hoped that both the bodily and mental health of the team would improve with a new manager, Bobby Valentine. Rumors had it that under Terry Francona the attitude of the players had slacked off inasmuch as they were said to be drinking beer and joking around in the clubhouse on the day of baseball games played in the evening. There had appeared to be a disunity of the players and, of course, we all know what happened: They blew a huge lead in the wild card and lost to Baltimore in the final game eliminating them completely from competing in the playoffs.
Unfortunately, things did not go well for Kevin or the team as the 2012 season began. Bobby Valentine criticized Kevin publicly saying he didn’t appear to being motivated to play his best or give it his all. For a guy that gives it 150% this was hurtful and, although, Valentine did apologize, things just never appeared to be quite the same for Kevin. Kevin was striking out a lot, a sign that he was simply not seeing the ball the way he had in the past. There was a glimmer of hope when, in an away game, Kevin hit a grand slam but the next day he struck out a few times. Soon enough he was out with another injury. Initially, Nick Punto had taken his position but Valentine knew he needed more firepower than Punto could offer so he brought up Will Middlebrooks from Pawtucket, a player thought to be a potential starter in a few years to come.
I have been a diehard Red Sox fan all my life, with the misfortune of coming from New Jersey and seeing them so often lose at Yankee Stadium in the ‘50’s. Despite this fact, I found myself hoping that Middlebrooks would make outs and not look all that good. I really wanted Youkilis to keep his job and shine. But Youk had had a very slow start and was having difficulty at the plate. He also looked just a shade slower in the field whether he played third or first base and he was making errors that he had rarely made in past years.
Meanwhile, while Youk was having difficulty at the plate, Middlebrooks’ starf was shining. When the Red Sox played the Marlins at home, and they were losing 5 to 3, appearing that they would lose, once more, to a very mediocre team, Middlebrooks hit a two run homer to tie the score. The Red Sox wound up winning the game by a score of 6 to 5 with Middlebrooks driving in 4 of the 6 runs scored. It was at this point that I realized perhaps it is best that the Sox keep him insofar as it was quite obvious that he could hit major league pitching quite well. Moreover, he appeared to be quite comfortable in the field and in the presence of his teammates.
It was pretty evident that there was now no place for Youk; the rumors began to circulate that he would be traded at some point. And so, we all saw that last at bat by him, a shot to right centerfield against the Atlanta Braves. It looked to everyone present including Youk that it would be caught but as it would happen the two Braves’ fielders got their signals crossed and the ball bounced in between them, at which point Youk took off and made a triple out of it.
We will all remember what came next: Bobby Valentine then pulled Youk for Nick Punto (the game was 9 to 4 Red Sox) and the two of them embraced, as Youk left third base. On his way to the dugout, he received a huge standing ovation and, upon entering the dugout, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, with his other teammates, hugged him. The crowed continued to cheer until he finally came out and took his hat off and waved, in acknowledgement to the fans, who continued to cheer. At the end of the game, it was announced that Youk had been traded to the Chicago White Sox.