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Bob Ryan

Little chance of Pedroia letdown

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / February 16, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - He's still short.

Dustin Pedroia's still short, but now he's Mr. MVP. In just two full seasons, plus 31 games, he's won a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, and a Gold Glove. Short jokes aren't going to bother Pedroia. He might even give you a few himself.

" 'Cause I'm 5-5, 165 pounds," he joked, when asked why he worked so hard in the winter of 2008-09. "I definitely have to put in the extra time. Definitely try to get my legs stronger so I can play 162 games."

OK, he's not 5 feet 5 inches, but he's not 5-9, either, no matter what the book says. Five-6 is closer to the truth, and he weighs more than 165. He's strong enough to hit 'em out, as we all know. Forget the size. He plays big.

But that's a matter of choice, and the fact that he has chosen not to be the textbook little guy tells you a lot about this extraordinary ballplayer. He could have taken the Nellie Fox, choke-up-and-hit-'em-where-they-ain't route, as best exemplified in the contemporary game by, say, David Eckstein. There's nothing wrong with that, and Eckstein has a pair of rings to show for it.

That obviously held no appeal for Pedroia. When he looked into the mirror, he saw more of a Joe Morgan type. The Hall of Fame second baseman was a legitimate power threat at 5-7. But when their swings are matched up, the comparison falls apart. Morgan was coiled and measured. Pedroia is more grip-and-rip, a miniature baseball version of John Daly, minus the career-threatening baggage.

More to the point, Pedroia has the cut and swagger of a boxer. You can picture him at the weigh-in or at the center of the ring receiving the referee's instructions, his face pressed up against his foe's, even as his lips are informing the other guy that his head is soon to be separated from his shoulders.

Cockiness, thy name is Dustin Pedroia.

Of course, it was hard to be that way around the mates when you were breaking into the big leagues the way Pedroia did. There's no place for excess bravado, either verbally or in mannerisms, when through your first 53 games and 150 at-bats in the bigs you are batting .187 with 11 runs scored and 10 driven in. And here was manager Terry Francona, essentially dependent on the glowing reports of the scouts, and armed with a viable replacement (Alex Cora), asking himself, "Do I keep believing the scouts, or my eyes? I need to see something from this kid - soon."

The Kid started showing some signs of offensive life with a 2-for-2 game in Minnesota May 5, 2007. That was the first of four consecutive multi-hit games (9 for 14), and by the time the month ended he had hit .415 with a 1.072 OPS, the highlight an epic 12-pitch at-bat against Eric Gagne in Arlington, Texas, that culminated in a homer that proved the eventual winning run.

I think we safely can say that Pedroia never has looked back.

We also can say that the full force of his powerful personality is on display. Shy, he ain't. But he had the good sense to wait until he actually had done something at the big league level before he began introducing his teammates to the real Dustin Pedroia.

"I don't know that you can come into a major league clubhouse and act like that," pointed out Francona. "He came in, did what he was supposed to do, and then grew into his personality. You have to be who you are. [Kevin] Millar was the same way. He could say things no one else could say and get away with it."

What most attracts the skipper to his second baseman is Francona's fervent belief that, Pedroia's clubhouse swagger aside, his head is in the right place. Francona thinks Pedroia is grateful for the accolades but far more interested in winning.

"He's actually a very humble person. I bet he'd be willing to sacrifice all those awards in order to be Tampa [Bay] in Game 7," asserted Francona.

Good bet.

"I'm excited about the MVP," Pedroia acknowledged. "It was a great year, but I was very upset about the way it ended. My biggest focus in the offseason was to get ready for this season. I just want to help the team win."

Toward that end he spent many hours at the famed Athletes' Performance Institute in Arizona. "Trying to get quicker and stronger," he said.

The Sox would have been thrilled had he merely matched his rookie numbers. No one on this earth foresaw that he would lead the American League in runs (118) and be tied for the lead in hits (213); or that in Year 2 he would have 25 more extra-base hits, drive in 33 more runs, have 48 more hits, and increase his stolen base total by 13 (career totals: 27 SBs and 3 CSs). And don't forget the Gold Glove.

People have suggested in print that we already have seen his career year. As you might suspect, that is of no concern to Pedroia.

"I don't worry about that," he said. "I just want to help the Red Sox win. I don't care what people say. I don't read the papers, anyway."

Francona, who loves needling the little guy, says that if you scrape away the yip-dog aspect of Pedroia's personality, you've got a managerial dream.

"He comes in and gets Rookie of the Year, and now he's the MVP," Francona said. "But those things are subjective. What's important is that he's just a really good player. It's nice to have those [type of] guys on your side. That's the only way to put it."

Dustin Pedroia just signed a six-year contract extension. Terry Francona would be thrilled to be around for all of it. Or even half.

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

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