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Bob Ryan

Youkilis is first at first

Believe it or not, this ball got away from Kevin Youkilis during yesterday's workout. But don't worry, it didn't count, and Youkilis's regular-season errorless streak is intact. Believe it or not, this ball got away from Kevin Youkilis during yesterday's workout. But don't worry, it didn't count, and Youkilis's regular-season errorless streak is intact. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / February 20, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - As a general rule, people pay attention to the defense of their favorite team's first baseman only when he really, really, really stinks.

(Ask grandpa about Dick Stuart.)

You can live with an average defensive first baseman, someone who catches all the average throws from his infielders and maybe keeps that bounced pickoff throw from skipping to the grandstand more often than not. But the truth is that most fans look at the defense of their team's first baseman the way most guys look at a belt. If it holds up the pants, they don't much care what it looks like.

I mean, hey, he's not the shortstop or the center fielder.

But when you get a great defensive first baseman, you really do notice the difference. When you get someone who digs out 99 percent of the tough throws, who makes the 3-6-3 look effortless, and who makes someone sorry he bunted, you take note, all right. A superior defensive first baseman makes the other three infielders measurably better. A superior defensive first baseman makes the pitcher better. A superior defensive first baseman is flat-out fun to watch.

Savvy reader that you are, you already know where this is going, don't you? It's about time to hear from the reigning American League Gold Glove first baseman, Mr. Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox.

"It's an unbelievable honor to have won the Gold Glove," Youkilis reports. "I've never been known for my defense. It's always been about offense for me."

Well, that offense was just fine in 2007. Kevin Youkilis is never going to be the archetypical Big Bopper of classical baseball fantasy, but he remains a productive piece of the Red Sox lineup puzzle with his lengthy at-bats, his walks, and his line-drive doubles (77 in the last two seasons). And batting .388 with four homers and 10 ribbies in the '07 postseason enhances his résumé some, wouldn't you say?

But last year's great revelation was his defense. Moved to first base on a permanent basis for the first time, Youkilis made it look easy, handling 1,080 chances in 1,094 regular-season innings without being charged with an error (he was finally assessed a debatable E-3 on a bouncing Jon Lester pickoff throw in Game 4 of the World Series). He thus joins Steve Garvey (1,319 errorless chances in 1984) in the all-time one-season 1.000 Fielding Percentage Club.

Let it be known that errors alone are not the appropriate way to judge anyone, especially first basemen. The great Ted "Big Klu" Kluszewski put up gaudy fielding percentages back in the day, even as one scribe said of the Cincinnati slugger that "he couldn't catch a bear in a telephone booth."

Kevin Millar, for example, was charged with only one error while playing 873 innings at first base last season for the Orioles. Need we say more?

That's why the Gold Glove is a truer testimony to what Youkilis was able to accomplish last year than his spotless fielding percentage. Presumably, the managers and coaches who make up the voting body went more with what their eyes told them, not on what the stat sheet said.

Youkilis is appropriately humble on the subject of his fielding.

"I've always had confidence in my abilities," he says. "But, basically, the change to first base was a little bit easier than it was working to become a better third baseman. At third base, you have to make the play cleanly. I'm not going to deny that first base is an easier position."

Still, there are things to learn. Holding a runner. Making the throw to third on a bunt ("You have to turn to your right, whereas at the other three infield positions, you're always turning to your left"). The 3-6-3 throw. And making the right decision on whether to try for a ball hit to your right.

On this, Youkilis says, he gets great assistance from Dustin Pedroia.

"It's all about communication," he says, "and Pedey is very good about making that call quickly."

He downplays the difficulty of the 3-6-3 throw, and he notes that he is blessed to have a number of smart pitchers who are able to make many a 3-6-3 double play into a 3-6-1.

"Wake, Schill, Josh, Dice-K are all very good at that," Youkilis says, "and so is Pap. Sometimes it gets funny with those situational guys." Lenny DiNardo, it turns out, was a real hoot.

But while winning the Gold Glove in his first full year as a regular first baseman was an honor, it doesn't come close to the satisfaction of winning that ring. Youk was a token participant in 2004 (0 for 2 in one Division Series appearance against the Angels), but he was a vital component of a second championship team last fall.

"Winning an award has never been a big goal for me," he says. "It's nice, of course. It would be fun to be in an All-Star Game. But I know what it feels like to win a championship. And I know what it feels like to lose after you've won one. You don't realize how great a feeling it is until after you've lost, or not to make the playoffs at all. Last winter ['06-07] was not fun. This offseason was a lot more fun."

Once upon a time, Kevin Youkilis was a curiosity, the much-discussed "Greek God of Walks." Now he's a certified Somebody, an intriguing offensive player who is further known for being able to flash some serious leather.

Boston fans no longer have to settle for watching some average first baseman. They are now savoring an artist.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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