The official ending came Monday. Unofficially, it ended long before.
Dustin Pedroia retired from the Red Sox and Major League Baseball Monday at 37 years old. The record shows his final game was a 5-3 loss to the Yankees on April 17, 2019. He flew out to right field in the top of the second inning off JA Happ, then departed before the bottom half due to “left knee soreness.”
The knee, ravaged by a dirty slide by the Orioles’ Manny Machado in April 2017, wasn’t right. It never would be again.
Pedroia’s goodbye Monday came 657 days after that final appearance, further confirmation of just how agonizing it must have been to stop fighting the internal rage against reality. The knee was shot, never to cooperate again. There was no miracle to be mustered.
“You gotta understand, they’re the best fans ever. On a Tuesday night, there’s 37,000 people there, and they’re going crazy,” he said during a Zoom conference with reporters Monday, during which he revealed he’d undergone a partial knee replacement. “And I got a chance to do it as long as I did. To do it one more time, yeah, of course, I’d do anything to have that opportunity. But I can’t. I can’t run. That part will always hurt me.
“I wish I had one more time but I don’t regret anything, it is what it is. I’m OK. I just have to take everything I’ve learned and built up and all the energy I have, I have to give it to other people now. That’s how I can help. But I’m OK.”
In his 14-season career, Pedroia played the way you knew you would if only you had the gifts – all out, all the time, with passion for the game as his fuel. It was said he played with a chip on his shoulder, but it’s more precise to say the chip played with a Pedroia.
He was Tanner Boyle with elite hand-eye coordination, a supreme defender at second base and a line-drive machine as a hitter – oh, yes, he will have a very real Hall of Fame case in five years – who just happened to look like the short, follicle-challenged guy in front of you in the Dunkin’s line every morning.
It’s a bummer it ended this way, with a scar on his knee and a much smaller one on his image, the result of a misguided comment during a brushback battle with Machado’s Orioles during that fateful 2017 series. Pedroia has been a fading shadow for two seasons, someone discussed in regard to the spot he still held on the 40-man roster and his salary’s effect on the payroll rather than as one of the great players in Red Sox history.
Perhaps now that his career is formally in the past tense, the achievements – the 2007 American League rookie of the year award, the 2008 AL Most Valuable Player award, four Gold Gloves, four All-Star appearances, three World Series titles (though he played just three games for those 2018 champs) – will be appreciated in full, and the conclusion that he is one of the greatest players in franchise history will be agreed upon without much debate.
A career .299 hitter with an .805 OPS, he provided the Red Sox with 51.6 wins above replacement (baseball-reference version) in his career, putting him right on the Hall of Fame fringe. I’ll have my first Hall of Fame vote right around when he becomes eligible, and I can assure you he has one vote waiting for him. At the very least, he is one of the finest, most determined, and easily appreciated players in Red Sox history, and his No. 15 should someday have a place on the right field façade.
But in this moment of finality, as we tug on threads of context in the attempt to provide perspective on a career completed, it’s not so much this end I’m thinking about as the beginning. I’ll admit it if you will: I wasn’t sold on him in the beginning, and don’t try to tell me I was alone.
He never rated higher than 77th (Baseball America, 2006) in the annual top 100 prospects ratings. He struggled mightily in his first big-league trial, hitting .137 with a .450 OPS through his first 19 games in September 2006. He finished that season at .191 with a .561 OPS in 98 plate appearances, and wasn’t much better to start 2007, hitting .180 through May 2. There’s probably evidence out there somewhere in the internet either of me referring to him around this time as a cockier Jeff Frye.
Then, it clicked. Over the next four games, he went 9 for 14, raising his average 87 points to .267. For the next decade and then some, even through the injuries, he never really stopped hitting from there. The laser show was spectacular, wasn’t it?
While Pedroia’s 2008 MVP season was his individual crowning achievement, that ’07 breakthrough was special, his bat and his mouth cracking equally loud. My long-held contention is that the ’07 Red Sox club – with the Manny/Papi/Tek core from the world-changers in ’04 bolstered by Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, and the first gleaming products of Theo Epstein’s player development machine – was the most complete roster in franchise history.
The World Series win that year – a 4-0 sweep of the Colorado Rockies – was almost an afterthought, with some of the specifics having faded from mind over the years as Boston sports teams overflowed the mental scrapbooks with so many championship memories that they became difficult to keep sorted.
But there’s one thing we all remember, right? Pedroia’s tone-setting leadoff home run in Game 1 against Rockies lefty Jeff Francis, then his totally in character declaration the next day when a Coors Field security guard questioned whether he was really a player.
“Ask Jeff Francis who I am,” said Pedroia, and I don’t include the expletive he deployed there because this is a family publication and I’m not certain whether he utilized it as a verb, noun or adjective.
Dustin Pedroia talked a good game. He played a better one, until his body would not cooperate any longer. His goodbye came Monday, nearly two years after his last appearance in an MLB game, and 15 years after his first.
We wish it could have lasted longer. But were we ever lucky to have all of that time to enjoy who he was.
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