To paraphrase Dustin Pedroia’s most famous presumed quote of the 2017 season, it’s not them, it’s him. And it always has been him.
I say “presumed quote’’ because we never actually heard what Pedroia yelled from the dugout to Orioles on-deck batter Manny Machado one day in April. That Sunday afternoon, the Red Sox and Orioles were engaged in a ludicrous and prolonged brushback war stemming from the Baltimore star’s borderline dirty takeout slide of Pedroia at second base earlier in the series.
The many amateur lip readers among us interpreted Pedroia’s words — which came moments after Sox reliever Matt Barnes unleashed a BB toward Machado’s frontal lobe — as him distancing himself from his teammate’s actions. “It’s not me,’’ Pedroia appeared to say, “it’s them.’’
We didn’t need to hear the words. We saw them, and it was not a good look. No ballplayer who wants to maintain his image and appeal should ever refer to his own team as “them.’’ As ill-advised as Barnes’s actions were, his heart was in the right place even if his fastball wasn’t. He was trying to guard his teammate’s back.
Pedroia — in the middle of a game, and against an AL East rival that takes great satisfaction in agitating the Red Sox — seemed to do the opposite. He blamed a teammate — and indirectly manager John Farrell — for trying to stick up for him. He looked selfish. It’s almost as if he forgot the games are televised and a camera is always watching.
When asked about it afterward, he did confirm what the camera revealed.
“I just told [Machado] I didn’t have anything to do with that,’’ Pedroia said. “That’s not how you do that, man. I’m sorry to him and his team. If you’re going to protect guys, you do it right away.’’
Of course, what was left unsaid by Pedroia was an acknowledgement of his mistake: If you’re going to apologize on behalf of your team, you probably shouldn’t do it in the middle of the game while distancing yourself from those who are sharing the dugout with you.
But then, like the beanball battle itself, the response among Red Sox fans to Pedroia’s behavior has lasted too long. Of the many disheartening things that happened with the 2017 Red Sox — the most unsatisfying 93-win team I can remember — the lingering damage to the longtime second baseman’s image is the most unjust.
For better or worse — and it’s been better by a vast margin through the years — this is who he is, and who he has always been. He’s a wonderful player who wants nothing more than to win. But he is not a charismatic leader of men, nor does he desire to be.
He wants to do his job well. He wants his teammates to do their jobs well. But he does his rallying on the field, not in the dugout. It’s always been more than enough.
Yet in the aftermath of the season-ending loss to the superior Astros in Game 4 of the Division Series — a game in which Pedroia made the final out, which has to be symbolic of something — I was taken aback at how much backlash there was to the longtime and generally beloved second baseman.
Much of it seemed to have lingered from the Machado/Barnes incident. He certainly deserved heat for that. But it should not cause a permanent dent in his image among a fan base that since 2007 has adored him.
I always thought Pedroia got a little bit too much credit for the Red Sox’ success. Yes, he was a wonderful player, a Rookie of the Year and then a Most Valuable Player as a sophomore, albeit in a weak year. But he got to do his gritty-gutty Laser Show thing in the welcome shadow of David Ortiz. He never had to carry a thing, save for that chip on his shoulder.
It seems to have swung too far the other way this year. I heard from fans via the various social media outlets who genuinely believe he was part of the problem with this team. He is not.
Sure, he’s entering his age 34 season, and most second basemen are scarred versions of their former selves at that age. It’s not a forgiving position. Pedroia has significant knee problems (which Machado exacerbated if didn’t cause outright) that could cost him part of the 2018 season, perhaps even a sizable chunk. But he’s still a terrific defensive second baseman, and one who hit .293 with 62 RBIs in just 105 games. That is a valuable player.
The issue is that the Red Sox still rely on him too much. Unless he morphs into Paul Molitor, he’s not going to become healthier in his mid 30s. He should be moved down the lineup, perhaps to the No. 7 spot, and he should not be relied upon every single day.
The ideal would be for the Red Sox to retain Eduardo Nunez as a super-utility player who could spell Pedroia every fourth day while getting some run as a third baseman and designated hitter as well. There would be plenty of at-bats for both.
The necessity to rely on Pedroia less — and to impart to him that he should no longer try to play through injuries — is one reason why Alex Cora would be a wise choice as manager. It was Cora who ceded his playing time to Pedroia in ’07. He has the gravitas and the grace to tell Pedroia it’s time, for his own good, to reduce his role now, a decade-plus later.
I’m sure it would be a difficult conversation, and one that probably wouldn’t convince him. Part of Pedroia’s appeal is what also makes him frustrating at times: He is off-the-charts stubborn. He is more gifted athletically than he gets credit for from fans who like to see a little of themselves in his success.
That stubbornness has served him and the Red Sox remarkably well, right up until that day against the Orioles when it didn’t. Don’t let that define your perception of him. He’s had too many big moments to let one small act damage his legacy beyond repair.