I've often said that Cam Neely is the most universally popular athlete among Boston fans of my sports lifetime.*
(* -- I remember Bobby Orr only as a Blackhawk, and that's my loss, I know. I wish I'd paid attention to the Bruins more when I was three.)
Tom Brady engenders perfect-life envy and won't be fully appreciated until he has long since moved to that little seaside shanty with a moat in California. Larry Bird had the scattered "he's overrated because he's pasty and practically opaque'' detractors. Local sports radio wind machines liked to refer to Pedro Martinez as a punk, which says more about them than him.
But everyone loved No. 8 in the black and gold.
I'm beginning to think Dustin Pedroia will match Neely's beloved status, and that's assuming he hasn't already. He certainly deserves it.
He's in his seventh exceptional season for the Red Sox, and is currently batting third for one of the most productive, redemptive and likable clubs we've watched in some time. Things tend to go to hell when he's not around. He plays the game the way you'd like to believe you would if blessed with such talent, determination, and opportunity. He truly loves and appreciates what he does, something Peter Abraham illustrated beautifully in this recent story.
I probably don't need to tell you all that; there's a decent shot you or your kid already has the requisite Sox t-shirt with No. 15 on the back. It's just that I feel obligated to acknowledge how much he is appreciated – and that he deserves all of it – because I suspect my opinion here is an unpopular one:
Taking sentimentality out of the equation, I don't quite get why the Red Sox are so intent on locking him up long-term right now.
And if the five-year, $100-million deal that they are reportedly discussing is tacked on to the end of his current contract (he has essentially two years and $21 million remaining after this season), then I'm very skeptical. What's the rush?
[Update: WEEI's Rob Bradford is reporting Pedroia and the Sox have agreed in principle on a seven-year deal through 2021 for roughly $100 million. So there you go. The current option for '15 is apparently the first year of the new deal. It's happening.]
I love everything Pedroia has done here, everything he is, but I'm wary of what he might become. The reason some consider it a no-brainer to pay him – he plays hard, always – is also a reason to wonder what he'll be at the middle of the contract, let alone at the end of it. Besides, if scrappiness and popularity were a reason to pay a player, Darren Bragg would still be in right field.
OK, that last line is snark for snark's sake. Pedroia plays hard, and very, very well. Still, I don't think it's unreasonable to wonder whether his career trajectory will be somewhat similar to Kevin Youkilis's, if perhaps not quite as drastic a downturn. Both had an exceptional peak. Both played very hard every day. And both suffered injuries both serious and bizarre.
Pedroia is playing through a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb that he tore sliding into first base on Opening Day. If it's affected him, it's noticeable in a slight dip in his home run power, a career-low slugging percentage (.422), and a subpar July so far (.641 OPS). But the toll of the injuries almost always becomes noticeable later. And later sometimes comes around sooner than you'd ever think.
He's not going to change his style, nor would we ever ask him to. But in his desire to play, he's done things that are counterproductive to his recovery, such as taking grounders while recovering from a broken foot in 2010. It was a great visual, watching him out there with crutches. It also set him back. Sometimes he is his own worst enemy.
Pedroia turns 30 in less than a month. That means that if this five-year deal is tacked on to the remaining two years, he'll be 37 when the contract plays out. That is well past the expiration date for most second basemen, a grueling position in which prolonged success into a player's mid-30s is rare.
Here's a little experiment I tried on baseball-reference. I took Todd Walker's 2003 season – 13 homers, a 95 OPS+, and a .760 OPS, a decent recent pre-Pedroia season by a Red Sox second baseman and one that would far and away be the worst of Pedroia's career – and punched it into b-ref's Play Index.
Then I searched for second basemen who matched or surpassed Walker's '03 numbers at ages 35 and 36. Here's what it gave me for age 35:
... and an even shorter list for 36.
And there was one age 37 season by a second baseman equal to or surpassing Walker's just-OK '03 season: Jeff Kent, in 2005.
Pedroia's list of comps doesn't offer much more peace of mind. His most similar player from ages 26-28 is Jose Vidro. The peak of the unsung Vidro's career looks remarkably similar to Pedroia's:
And his fade was painfully fast. Some of that decline was due to injuries, and Vidro wasn't the mostly finely conditioned athlete of the 21st century. But again, it's at least a small reminder: second base, to paraphrase semi-fictional Ron Washington from "Moneyball,'' is incredibly hard.
If you're skeptical, imagine yourself waiting for a throw from the third baseman while just out of your line of vision, Yasiel Puig is barreling toward your left knee with the ferocious intent of breaking up a double play no matter what it takes. Me, I'd go fetal roughly 20 feet behind the bag. Make it straightaway center field just to be safe.
Second base is a tough position to endure even if you play with self-preservation in mind. Dustin Pedroia has never played with self-preservation in mind. It's one reason why Boston loves him like it loved Neely, a player who was robbed of the years beyond his prime and thus never faded in our eyes.
If a player is going to make $20 million per year, sure, it might as well be Pedroia, if you want to look at it in a vacuum, with no consideration to how it might affect team-building, the salary structure, and so on. But if this contract is a five-year extension rather than one that starts anew next year -- and it is apparently the former, with an average annual value of roughly $15 million -- here's a suggestion to tuck away for future reference:
Make a note to remember how fun he was to watch when he signed this deal. Because as adept as he has been at proving doubters wrong, chances are that in 2019 and beyond, Pedroia, will bear only a faint resemblance to the player he is now.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.