TAMPA — Kevin Youkilis walked out of the bathroom on Wednesday with a freshly shaven head. He looks to be in good shape, but he looks different in pinstripes for sure.
He is a Yankee he said because of the “few teams” who courted him this offseason, he felt “the Yankees had the best chance of winning the World Series.” Since his opening remarks in New York about being a “Red Sox forever” Youkilis has become more Yankee-like.
He was a bit combative during our discussion, unwilling to discuss the April incident with Bobby Valentine that seemed to stain the relationship of player and manager for the remainder of his tenure in Boston.
“I’m not going to talk about Bobby. I’ve moved on, he’s moved on. I’m a New York Yankee in 2013 and that’s what I’m focusing on. I don’t think it does any good to rehash stuff like that. You have your opinion. You’re pretty adamant about what you thought, so go with it.”
Sure sounded like Youkilis hadn’t moved on, but he wasn’t about to engage in any more chit-chat about Valentine.
He said the Red Sox made one call to him this offseason to gauge interest with his agent Joe Bick, but, “that was the only call they made.”
Would he have come back if they wanted him?
“I was a free-agent so I was just going to go through my options,” Youkilis said.
He said the White Sox, the team he was traded to, made him an offer as did the Cleveland Indians. He said the lure of reuniting with Terry Francona and coach Brad Mills was tempting. He said other teams engaged in discussions with him, but he thought the Yankees’ one-year, $12 million deal was the best situation to perhaps reignite his career which had taken a downward path the previous three years.
He had been banged up a lot. It seemed as if his body was breaking down.
“My health was actually all right,” Youkilis said. “Nothing was wrong with me. I had an extended rehab. They took it slow with me and made sure I was 100 percent.”
He went to the White Sox and had a killer first week. He played well at times after that, but this was not the old Youk Red Sox fans had grown to love over the years. This was a different version. A version that made one think his best days were behind him and that the Red Sox made the right choice to opt for Will Middlebrooks as their third baseman of the future.
The Sox brass decided that making Valentine play Adrian Gonzalez in right and Youkilis at first and having to platoon players wasn’t going to work over time. So they traded Youkilis for Zach Stewart and Brent Lillibridge. Neither player is still with the Red Sox.
What happened to Youkilis?
“Mixture of things,” he said. “I battled myself with my stance and my hands and all sorts of different things. I battled myself. Mentally, I had a down year which can lead sometimes to some things on the field. When you battle yourself on the field that’s not good. I was trying to make things different to hit .300 out of .230 and you can’t do it. You have to keep it simple.
“I had my best week when I was traded. I have a little watch (for making the playoffs) back at my house from the Chicago experience which I really enjoyed. But during that time, my wife was pregnant and she was there for a few weeks in Chicago but then she had to go back to California and we were away from each other for two months. Our child was born.
“That was mentally tough on me. It was tough being away from my family and not being there for my wife, but I was also fighting myself in baseball. A lot of those things added up. There’s no excuses other than not performing and doing your job.”
So now he feels he has a fresh start. He dresses near another newcomer, Travis Hafner, in the Yankees clubhouse.
He has more new faces and new manager Joe Girardi to deal with. He’s got the third base job because Alex Rodriguez may miss the season with more hip surgery. So this is his chance to be Youk again — the OBP machine he was in Boston.
“It’s not a matter of proving anything to anyone but myself. Helping my team win and winning the games. Playing the game hard. As long as I can help this team win in some way every game, I feel I’m doing my job,” he said.
Deep down he probably thought he’d always be a Red Sox.
“It’s one of those things where you never know what the future holds. I was there long enough to see a lot of guys come and go — Nomar and Pedro — all the greats who were there. You can’t see it [forever], things happen and it’s part of the game,” he said.
He’s more than aware of the new people the team has put in place, replacing Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Youkilis from the 2012 Red Sox team that started the season.
“Oh yeah. I see guys they picked up. They have a bunch of guys I’ve played against and know. It’s a different team. Good coaching staff. I love Brian Butterfield. I love that Arnie Beyhler got the first base job. I’m not rooting for them during the 19 games they play against us,” Youkilis said.
Red Sox management thought the chemistry of the team was poor. So they changed it.
“Guys got along, but I think it was a different atmosphere. Different things were happening with different managers, coaches and players. The whole thing was different. Tito wasn’t there. Players have to play though no matter what the situation was.”
Why did the poor play continue from September of 2011 to the beginning of 2012?
“We just didn’t play good baseball. You can look at a million different reasons why. You can look at this variable or that variable, but we as players didn’t perform. And that’s the bottom line.”
And now the third baseman for the Yankees, Kevin Youkilis.
“I grew up at third base, but I played more first base than third base. Third is a tough position. First base is easier. Third is one of the toughest positions in the infield. I’ve been working hard on trying to improve my weaknesses. Trying to improve every day. I’m working on foot work or what [coach] Mick Kelleher wants me to work on.”
Yes, he will always love his time in Boston, but “I think we have a great team over here. It’s going to be fun.”