Kevin Youkilis embraced his teammates and gave a series of heartfelt waves, and he descended once more down the home dugout steps at fabled Fenway Park, this time for good. And just like that, the Red Sox took another step toward the future and away from their past, third base now fully entrusted into the care of William Scott Middlebrooks.
Youkilis had to go, of course. The question now is how many others will follow. Youkilis was merely the most obvious and simplest move the Red Sox had to make this midseason, their team improving in both the short term and the long with Sunday's news that he had been dealt to the Chicago White Sox. With each passing day, the Red Sox further distance themselves from the embarrassment of last September, from an identity of overpaid underachievers to one of youth and grit.
Somewhere, assuming he is capable, Josh Beckett is smiling, bidding a short adieu to the man who might have been The Snitch.
The truth? The Red Sox missed Youkilis last September, if for no other reason than the fact that Youkilis always played hard, without exception. He rarely lost focus, perhaps to a fault. While the Red Sox were going down without a fight last fall, Youkilis was sidelined, yet again, with an injury. If he was in fact the snitch who ratted out Beckett and his fellow pitchers for an absence of commitment in what became a chicken fried clubhouse, at least we can say with certainty that Youkilis' heart was in the right place.
Unlike many of the players on this Red Sox team, after all, Youkilis was largely a self-made player. He was an eighth-round pick by former Sox general manager Dan Duquette - the last of the Duke guys - whose appearance in "Moneyball" made him a bit of a circus act. His greatest asset was, of all things, plate discipline. When Youkilis first reached the big leagues in 2004, many regarded him as nothing more than a bench player.
Instead, Youkilis became an All-Star, a cleanup man and a cornerstone who batted .306 in the postseason during his career and went an insane 14 for 28 in the 2007 American League Championship Series. He became a Gold Glove first baseman. He got the absolute most out of his ability, and then some, which is certainly more than we can say for too many multi-year, multimillionaires who played for the Red Sox last season and this one.
Maybe some of you didn't like Youkilis. Maybe some teammates found him to be humorless and over-the-top intense. Maybe he needed to chill out a little, which is exactly what Manny Ramirez rightfully tried to tell him when confronting him in the dugout in 2008.
But Youkilis never, ever mailed it in, which is more than we can say for the double-fisted Colonel Sanders crew.
What Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington needs to remember now is that Youkilis was never part of the problem, not really, at least with regard to the ultimate goal: winning. The Red Sox got their money's worth out of Youkilis. What Cherington needs to continue doing now is to further examine the makeup of a roster that still has some obvious issues, most notably among a group of overpaid pitchers whose inability to remain both healthy and productive is an ongoing concern.
Translation: If you can move one of your overpriced pitchers and get something good, Ben, you should do it. The reaction of the fan base may surprise. Maybe your team would take a hit in the short term and maybe it would not. But at the very least, you would continue to send a clear message to your clubhouse.
The team is what is important here. The individual credentials mean nothing anymore.
In that way, Youkilis was the easiest of sacrifices, no matter how relatively miniscule the return from Chicago. (You may grow to like Brent Lillibridge.) Youkilis and Bobby Valentine clashed from the start. Middlebrooks is a superior player. Given how tightly the Red Sox managed their payroll over the winter, the Sox now have another $1 million or so that they can take onto the money saved by dealing away Marco Scutaro in hopes of further improving by July 31.
Simply put, Youkilis had to go. That was apparent weeks ago. But anyone who thinks the Red Sox are now fully free of baggage is badly mistaken because there is still a long way for this team to go.
In many ways, Youkilis' departure on Sunday was terribly fitting, the Red Sox climbing to a season-high four games over .500 shortly after Youkilis walked off the Fenway Park lawn. You just can't keep moving forward sometimes unless you cut ties to the past. Along with David Ortiz, Youkilis was one of just two players remaining from the Red Sox team that ended decades of frustration by winning the World Series in 2004, but the Red Sox cut any ties with sentimentality long, long ago, from Roger Clemens to Mo Vaughn to Nomar Garciaparra and beyond.
Youkilis is now just the latest name on that list.
And so young Will Middlebrooks is on the clock.
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