Bobby Valentine came to Boston and he brought a reputation with him, and the men who run the Red Sox knew it. Valentine knew it. And so did Kevin Youkilis, just one of the many men on the Boston roster to have his ears perked.
Youkilis returns to Fenway Park tonight as a member of the first-place Chicago White Sox, and we all know how this went down. The inaptly named Valentine won't exactly be blowing kisses from the Boston dugout when Youk steps into the on-deck circle. Youkilis won't be sending any love notes back, either. How Valentine and Youkilis went bad is a story that may well end up defining this Red Sox season, an amusing truth given the very real possibility that neither one of them may have been destined to remain here next year, anyway.
"I think the comment that I made early, he made a big issue out of," Valentine told reporters on Sunday, referring to early season remarks that Youkilis seemed detached, "and I donít think he ever wanted to get over it."
Valentine is right, of course. He made the comment. Youkilis overreacted. And the clubhouse issues that began last fall and carried through the winter bubbled right into 2012, coming to a head when Valentine chose his side.
Valentine is 62, remember, and he has been around baseball a long time. With regard to the personalities in the Red Sox clubhouse to start this season, Valentine knew exactly what he was doing. (On the baseball decisions, at least at the beginning, we cannot be so sure.) As a TV analyst last season, Valentine criticized both Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford, the latter of whom will return to the Red Sox lineup on Monday night. In the case of Beckett, Valentine began backpedaling almost immediately, defending his pitcher's deliberate nature on the mound as a strategic ploy.
Beckett got the benefit of the doubt from his new manager. Youkilis got none. If anyone thinks that was some sort of coincidence, they do not know the history of the manipulative Bobby V.That said, let's make something clear here: had Youkilis performed well from the very start of this season, there is every chance he would still be here. Maybe Will Middlebrooks would have remained in the minor leagues. Maybe Youkilis never would have lost his job. Trading Youkilis became an easy decision for Ben Cherington when Middlebrooks starting hitting, if only because the Red Sox took relatively little back for the player while eating the large majority of his remaining salary.
And for as much power as Valentine may think he wields in Boston, he is operating on a two-year contract. He, too, could be gone at the end of this year. Trading Youkilis was the decision of Cherington and not of Bobby V., who disingenuously waved Youkilis back to the top step of the dugout for a curtain call when Youkilis played his last game here last month.
The one thing we do not know: was Youkilis in any way derailed by Valentine's mind games? Did Youkilis take his distaste for Valentine out onto the field? Does that explain why Youkilis has 15 RBI in 16 games for the White Sox - he had 14 in 42 games for the Red Sox - to go along with a .295 average and .872 OPS?
Or was Youkilis potentially done in between the walls of his own clubhouse, knowledge Bobby V. admitted to having when he criticized Youkilis in the first place?
With the Red Sox, as always, there is never any way to know for certain. State politics look like PTA meetings compared to the lobbying that takes place daily in and around Fenway Park. That was true in 1912 and it is true now. People will always believe what they want to believe, no matter how little impact Youkilis' departure will end up having on this Red Sox season.
The Red Sox were 38-34 with Youkilis on their roster, after all. They are 7-10 since. Either way, you have a team within a few games of .500, which should hardly be the goal when you are talking about one of the highest payrolls in the game.
With regard to Youkilis, his intensity always has been an issue. From the moment he arrived in the clubhouse as after being dubbed by Billy Beane as the "Greek god of walks," many teammates have been turned off by him. When Manny Ramirez confronted Youkilis in 2008 for throwing equipment in the dugout, the message was the same one Mo Vaughn delivered to Nomar Garciaparra early during Garciaparra's career.
Enough with the temper tantrums. We're all tired of dodging shrapnel. Your at-bats aren't any more important to you than ours are to us. Especially when you're hitting over .300.
Still, if Youkilis was frustrated by the way things went at the end of last season, didn't he have a right to be? Youkilis was on the sideline and injured when the Red Sox imploded, but he has never lacked competitiveness. He undoubtedly saw what the rest of us saw, a Red Sox team with little fight and spirit, one fragmented and destroyed by selfishness.
In late September, remember, the Baltimore Orioles won 3 of 4 during a visit to Fenway Park. In the eighth and ninth innings of their three losses, the Red Sox went a combined 0 for 17 against a Baltimore relief corps that finished the season ranked 13th in the American League in bullpen ERA. For all of the criticisms of Youkilis during his career, no one ever blamed him for undisciplined at-bats.
The irony this season, of course, is that Red Sox owners and operators seemingly brought in Valentine to infuse the club with precisely the same intensity. The idea was to hold everyone accountable again, to refocus and recommit, to change a culture that had badly gone awry.
Kevin Youkilis just never imagined that he would be the one felled by the shrapnel.
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