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MVP Pedroia lights up Red Sox clubhouse

By Howard Ulman
AP Sports Writer / February 21, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla.—The short, prematurely bald MVP sits down for a game of cribbage with his manager. The cards come out. The banter escalates.

The competitive juices flow.

Dustin Pedroia vs. Terry Francona. No holds barred, no tongues held.

"You got to see him playing cards with Tito," says slugger David Ortiz with his hearty laugh. "Let's say they sit down in a restaurant or in a plaza outside to play cards. You believe two seconds later they're about to fight. They're about to punch each other.

"It's so funny. It's ridiculous how they talk to each other."

A good-natured rip on the scrappy second baseman by his manager or a Boston Red Sox teammate brings the same in return. They respect Pedroia immensely as a player -- his skills, his work ethic, his team-first approach.

He's also a heck of a lot of fun to be around.

"He certainly brightens up a room," Francona said.

Pedroia's accomplishments on the field are remarkable -- rookie of the year in 2007, MVP last year -- especially for a 5-foot-7, 170-pounder who, at first glance, hardly looks like one of the game's best.

Yet at age 25, he's coming off an amazing season in which he became the seventh player to lead the AL in runs, hits and doubles in the same year. The group includes Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Nap Lajoie, Charlie Gehringer and Cal Ripken Jr.

Last year, Pedroia hit .326, second in the AL to Minnesota's Joe Mauer, and won a Gold Glove with his all-out diving style and knack for turning a quick double play. He was a runaway winner of the MVP award, and got a $40.5-million, six-year contract in December, but doesn't flaunt his accomplishments.

His teammates treat him as they always did -- when they arrived at spring training, they started picking on him again.

"They always do anyway," Pedroia said. "It's not like I'm prancing around wearing a shirt that says 'I'm the MVP.' So I don't think anybody cares."

Nobody expects him to change no matter how much success he has. He'll still hustle and remain humble. But he'll also remember each perceived slight and use it for motivation.

Francona introduced Pedroia to former Oakland manager Ken Macha, who appeared on Red Sox post-game shows last year. Macha said Pedroia reminded him of 5-foot-10 former major league outfielder Chad Curtis, who hit .265 for his career.

"He meant it really as a compliment," Francona said, "and Pedey's like, 'You're (kidding) me.' It went from ... just introducing a friend I had to hold Pedey back."

Then there was the time late last year when he contacted Ortiz.

"He sent me a text message in December telling me that he was ready to rock somebody already. I mean, dude, come on, seriously. It's December," Big Papi said.

General manager Theo Epstein first saw Pedroia in college at Arizona State.

"I don't think his personality's changed from when he was in high school from what I hear," Epstein said. "I think he reined his personality in a little bit in his first exposure to the big leagues because he hadn't established himself as a player."

Opponents aren't as enamored of his style -- a pesky, win-at-all-costs attitude from a guy who still wants to show he can play with the big guys even after becoming only the third player to win the rookie and MVP awards in consecutive years.

"He plays with an attitude people who are on the other side might call cocky, but people on his side know that he just believes in himself," Epstein said.

Epstein said there is a natural bias toward bigger players in the draft. Had Pedroia been 6-foot-2, Epstein said, he would have been a top five draft pick in 2004 instead of 65th.

For all he's accomplished in such a short span, Pedroia still may have doubters -- a group that has pushed him as he's climbed the ranks in amateur and pro baseball.

"I hope there is" a skeptical group, he said. "It makes it fun proving them all wrong."

They seemed right at the beginning of the 2007 season when Pedroia hit just .172 in his first 21 games. He said he often gets off to slow starts. In the next 44 games he hit .336 and finished his first year at .317.

"If you look at the history of great players in the big leagues, a large percentage of them struggle" early, Epstein said.

Willie Mays had just one hit in his first 26 at bats, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Pedroia started 4-for-40 in a late-season callup in 2006.

"In Pedroia's case, he was a great high school player," Epstein said. "He was an All-American in college. He raked in Low-A, High-A, Double-A, Triple-A and we knew he would ultimately perform in the big leagues.

"He just believes in himself. He's outgoing, self-effacing. He puts the team first. He's the ultimate grinder. He'll run through a wall for you. He's hilarious. He's totally fearless. He's what you want in a baseball player."

Pedroia is very confident and does what the team needs -- even batting fourth a few games last year when Manny Ramirez was traded and sitting out games if Francona tells him to, despite a desire to play all 162.

"His fire, his personality, all of it is unique," Francona said, "but it's all real. None of it's staged. That's part of what makes him so special."

Ortiz gets to watch from the on-deck area when Pedroia bats in his usual second spot.

"I look like a 5-year-old watching a superhero," Ortiz said. "Then I'd come up to hit and I was thinking about what he just did. That's how impressive he is. You just enjoy it.

"You see him working so hard. If you see him and you don't see his name or his number on his back, you'd be like, 'Man, this guy's trying to make the team.' That's how he rolls."

He plays cribbage the same way.

Ask Pedroia if he ever beats his boss and here's what he says: "Every day, every day, every day."

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