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Happy with his spot in the order

Being 'under the radar' is just fine by Youkilis

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kevin Youkilis examined the idea much the same way he does the first pitch of his at-bats.

He looked it over, then decided to let it go without offering at it.

Someone had suggested to the Red Sox first baseman that it might be a fine gesture for the team to invite the newly retired Keith Foulke to throw out a ceremonial first pitch in Fenway Park, as a way of honoring the closer for his extraordinary work in the runup to the team's World Series title in 2004.

"I don't know," he said, "people were pretty rough on him the last couple of years. Do you think he'd even come? I'm not sure he would. And how do you think people would react if he did?"

For the record, honoring Foulke in such a fashion has not appeared on anyone's radar in the Sox organization. It's been kicked around in informal conversation and Internet chatter, but publicly, at least, it hasn't gone further than that. And while Youkilis found the notion a bit far-fetched, it did lead him to some musings on the relationship between the fans and those who wear the Sox uniform.

"Our lives in this game go so quick," he said. "The time we spend playing baseball is much shorter than the rest of our lives, yet it often defines our lives. We come and go, but Red Sox fans will be there till their dying days.

"Fans can name guys from the '60s, and are so passionate about remembering them. People are going to remember us in Boston for years to come. It's funny. Sometimes, as players, we don't want all the attention that we get outside the field, but when we're older, we'll probably want to get it, just to get some of that old feeling back.

"Some guys don't like it, regardless. Like Yaz. He's just one of those guys who loves baseball. He loves the game, he loves competing, he loves hard-nosed guys, but he's happy just going away.

"For some guys, Boston is an easy place to play. They like the spotlight all the time. Other guys don't, which can make Boston tough, but even some of those guys who don't like the attention love to play here because they love baseball and this is a great environment in which to play."

Youkilis has been with the Sox for parts of four seasons. The Sox don't go anywhere -- including Kansas City, where they play the Royals tonight in the second game of the season -- without Youkilis hearing entire sections cooing his name.

Still, in his mind, Youkilis said, he is "flying under the radar." He points to the fact that last year was his first full season in the majors.

"The greatest thing about playing for the Boston Red Sox," he said, "is that you don't really fly under the radar, but you can fly under the radar a little while. My baseball talents are my baseball talents. If I go out and play my game each day, they're not pointing fingers at me and telling me I stink.

"It's not about standing out, and personal accomplishments, for me. If my teammates and guys around the league think I'm good and think highly of me, when it's all said and done, that's all that matters. You can't worry about this guy who gets on the radio or on the Internet and says, 'He stinks, he's terrible.' I used to hear stuff and think, 'Why would someone say that about me?' Now, it's like, who cares?"

Grinding out numbers
Youkilis stood out in numerous ways last season. With Mike Lowell coming over from Florida, he made a seamless transition from third base to first base. When Coco Crisp fractured his finger, he slipped into the leadoff spot and posted a .385 on-base percentage, second highest among AL leadoff hitters. He finished seventh in the league in walks with 91, and eighth in doubles with 42. No one saw more pitches per plate appearance in the AL than Youkilis, an average of 4.42.

He also struck out a career-high 120 times, and wore down in the second half, batting just .258 after the All-Star break, though that did not lead him to beg off from playing left field when Manny Ramírez was hurt and Terry Francona needed bodies.

Youkilis, who turned 28 in March, brought a new self-awareness to camp this season.

"We have to grind every day," he said, "especially some of us who are not the most talented players. My whole life, I always was just playing for the day, because I've always felt I didn't know what tomorrow is going to bring. I didn't get drafted until my senior year [at the University of Cincinnati]. I've always played like, 'I've got to do something.'

"I finally started to realize I need to slow that down. I need to realize I'm here, I'm the first baseman, I'm going to be playing. Slow down and not panic. I don't really panic, but it's like you hit the ball hard, a line drive, why are you freaking out?

"I go up there now and I know I'm a good hitter. I know I can play at this level. Rather than getting mad about things I can't control, I can become a way better player if I just keep going and try to learn from the game."

No. 2, and trying harder
Youkilis takes special pride in his defense, though he acknowledges the fielder's glove he takes to third base still feels more comfortable than the oversized mitt a first baseman wears. The challenge of playing first base, he said, is that he's always moving -- holding a runner on base, then jumping off the bag, cutting across the diamond to take relay throws at different spots, charging in for bunts.

"The toughest part is knowing where to go on throws," he said. "I'm always giving myself little reminders. In a month or two, it'll come more naturally."

Youkilis, who had two hits in the opener, is no longer batting leadoff. He's settled into the No. 2 spot, behind newcomer Julio Lugo. But while he expects Lugo to run, especially because he takes pitchers so deep into the count, Youkilis said he has no plans to alter his basic approach at the plate.

"I'm going up there trying to get hits, trying to get on base," he said. "I'll try not to swing at bad pitches, but I'm not up there trying to get a walk. I'm up there to get a good pitch to hit and swing at it. I'm not going to swing at the first pitch. I like to see the ball, and I feel with two strikes I can still do some damage.

"I couldn't believe all the strikeouts last year. There were a lot of called third strikes. No more guessing for me. I got out of that. Just react. If I can cut down on the strikeouts, I'll be happy, and there are a couple of little things I need to work on to improve on a daily basis."

Youkilis grows weary of justifying his presence at first base, a position occupied by sluggers on other teams. He may not hit 40 home runs, he said, but he believes 20 is certainly within reach (he hit 13 last season) and his on-base ability and stellar defense bring plenty of value to a team that has big boppers at other positions.

There comes a time, he said, when you just play, and don't worry about what others think. That's what Crisp was trying to say, he believes, when he said, "I don't care if people think I suck."

"I can't speak for Coco," he said, "but I think what he's trying to say is he's going to go out and give it his all every night, and at the end of the day, he knows and his teammates know that he doesn't suck.

"That's the way a lot of us have got to be. Play your butts off and win."

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