He was one of the 25, as we like to say around here in tribute to that extraordinary brotherhood of players who brought the 2004 World Series trophy to Boston. And now, eight years later, only one of the 25 remain.
So it was natural that those in attendance at Fenway Park turned sentimental and nostalgic Sunday when Kevin Youkilis was removed from the game in the seventh inning, those swirling trade rumors finally settling on the south side of Chicago as his destination.
Youkilis’s final scene in a Red Sox uniform couldn’t have been more perfect if Dr. Charles Steinberg had scripted it and the Pops was in the house to give it a soundtrack. It was better than that, actually, because it was genuine, organic and real.
He chugged out a triple (aided by the haywire GPS of two cooperative Atlanta outfielders), sliding hard into third and no doubt covering up a recently acquired dirt stain with a new one. His old friend Nick Punto came on to pinch-run — this is it, the trade must be complete, we seemed to recognize in unison — and Youkilis knew it, too. These were his final acts as a member of the Red Sox, the only organization he had ever known.
It was sentimental, it was nostalgic, and despite Bobby Valentine’s transparent attempts to appear as if he’s copacetic with Youkilis — theatrical ol’ Bobby V. has never seen a scene couldn’t try to steal — it was authentic.
Youkilis hugged his teammates — Punto, David Ortiz, and Dustin Pedroia, who appeared to make a particular point of paying homage and showing solidarity. He waved his helmet appreciatively, and he savored one last salute of “Yooooooooouuuuuukkkk!!!,” which sounds like a chorus of boos, though no one around here requires an earnest announcer to inform us that it is precisely the opposite. I can’t think of a ballplayer ever getting a more appropriate, mutually sincere sendoff, especially during a game.
As wonderful as it was, that nostalgia and sentimentality shouldn’t obscure the reality: Trading Youkilis was not just the right thing to do, it was the only thing to do, even for a scratch-off ticket (former top prospect Zach Stewart, whose star has fallen from lottery-ticket status) and a utility man (Brent Lillibridge, who brings versatility, speed, and an uncanny resemblance to Clay Buchholz).
I won’t dwell on this, because this is supposed to be more appreciation than condemnation, but it’s safe to presume there will be no seller’s remorse here. This will not be a cautionary tale about making a trade too soon, and it’s not collateral damage of hiring Bobby V. as a manager.
Youkilis is a 33-year-old player whose top career comp is Trot Nixon (finished at 34), whose production has declined following two serious and bizarre injuries, whose contract is up at season’s end, who has six home runs since the beginning of last August, and who, most important, was keeping ascending Will Middlebrooks out of the lineup too often. Please, when Middlebrooks inevitably slumps for a week or two and Youk hits two homers in three games for the White Sox, do not overreact.
I’ve seen the words “icon” and “legend” used to describe Youkilis over the past several hours. No. He’s not that. That’s hyperbole brought on by emotion. What he is, then? Start by praising him for being about as self-made as a high-quality major-league ballplayer can be, albeit one whose lack of appealing aesthetics probably contributed to him not getting his first real shot as an everyday player until he was 27. One of Terry Francona’s most regrettable decisions as Red Sox manager was sticking too long with stumbling Kevin Millar over Youkilis in 2005.
He’s a player who had two very good years (2006-07), a peak (2008-10) during which he was an absolute on-base machine and one of the premier hitters in baseball, and an injury-accelerated decline phase that is probably closer to the middle stages than the beginning. He was a dependable third baseman and an outstanding first baseman. His postseason feats, particularly in 2007, when he had gone from bit player to essential, are actually underrated — he owns a .944 career OPS in the playoffs, and in the ’07 ALCS he hit .500 (14 for 28) with three home runs.
Perhaps the greatest tribute is this: Whether it was the postseason or a random midsummer Saturday game in Kansas City, he never punted away an at-bat, working counts and wearing down pitchers. But it also must be acknowledged that it’s something he’s struggled to do lately with his strikeout-rate rising and his walk-rate shrinking, telltale signs that his best days are already in the highlight reels.
It’s funny, for all of Youkilis’s accomplishments on the playing field, some of his most memorable scenes feature the dugout as a backdrop. Remember his first career home run, in his May 2004 big-league debut in Toronto? His new teammates ignored him upon returning to the dugout, a charming cold-shouldered baseball tradition when a rookie hits his first homer, so he high-fived his imaginary friends until the bench erupted. There was his scrap with Manny Ramirez in June 2008, the greatest confirmation to that point that Youkilis had a little — later to be revealed as a lot — of that Rick Burleson feistiness. And then Sunday, and the seventh-inning farewell.
There is one more dugout scene that matters — or one that began in the dugout, anyway, and ended with a delirious pile of humanity on the pitcher’s mound in St. Louis. The front page of the Thursday, October 28, 2004 edition of the Globe is framed and hanging above my desk in my home office, labeled the “Victory Edition” in carmine type, the newspaper we’d been waiting for to show up on our doorstep for 86 years. The center photo features the Red Sox swarming Keith Foulke after the final out, though you can’t actually see Foulke since he’s engulfed by champions and ghostbusters. On the outskirts of the pack, a half-step slow but somehow right there in the middle of it all, is Youkilis, a permanent part of Red Sox history, one of the 25, one of a kind.