In the ballgames and seasons since Kevin Youkilis arrived in the major leagues on May 15, 2004 — no doubt scowling intensely and already worked up into a full sweat — there’s been a significant shift in the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.
The Red Sox have won two World Series, the Yankees one. As currently structured three months before pitchers and catchers head south, neither roster suggests the likelihood of championship contention in 2013. The Red Sox are rebuilding and recovering after the Bobby Valentine catastrophe and the necessary but franchise-altering August blockbuster with the Dodgers. The Yankees, talented but aging, are spending cautiously, and that is as odd to see in print as it is in concept given their history.
Sure, they still eyeball each other warily. But this isn’t Fisk vs. Munson Punchout, or the Who-Is-Karim-Garcia heyday, when the mutual detest among the fanbases was deep and chronic and personal. There’s something of a lull in the loathing. Frankly, both teams should be more concerned with the Rays, who got just what they needed when they heisted Wil Myers from the Royals, rather than each other.
That’s my roundabout way of saying I’m surprised we’re still getting worked up about whether the laundry is tinted with carmine or adorned with pinstripes. When I joked on Twitter in the wake of the news that Youkilis has agreed to a one-year, $12 million contract with the Yankees that we’ll never be able to tell whether he’s getting booed or cheered at Fenway, I was surprised by some of the venomous reactions, as if he’d violated some trust with the fans in front of whom he’d given his all for the first eight-plus seasons of his career, including two top-six finishes in the MVP balloting.
His decision to join the Yankees seems an easy one to me. They offered him $12 million for one season, a superior offer to the two years and $18 million he reportedly could have had to rejoin Terry Francona in Cleveland. As a player who arrived late — he made his debut at age 25 — and is apparently in early decline, taking a salary that is just a $250,000 pay cut from what he made last season makes endless sense, particularly since he’s never hit a huge jackpot, with $44 million-plus in career earnings. He’ll get a chance to rebuild his value replacing the injured Alex Rodriguez in a productive lineup where his patience will be valued even if he can’t get his batting average above last year’s .236. Taking sentiment out of it, it’s a good place for him, just as it was for Wade Boggs in 1993 and more than a half-dozen ex-Red Sox since ’04.
Of course, I understand that taking sentiment out of it isn’t something everyone is willing or able to do. Johnny Damon, whose two-homer, six-RBI Game 7 performance in the 2004 ALCS was as clutch as you’ll find in franchise history — seriously, pause a minute and think about how he and fellow recent Yankee Derek Lowe altered history that night — still gets booed around here for taking a few extra bucks to join the Yankees after the 2005 season. And Adam Vinatieri is inexplicably, dully razzed whenever he returns to Foxborough, seven seasons after he left for the Colts in a decision that worked out best for all involved.
As petty as those lingering grudges seem, they’re more understandable than jeering Youkilis, who unlike Damon and Vinatieri really didn’t have any say in whether he remained or departed. He was done in last season by frustration with the unfathomably tone-deaf buffoon of a manager, who gracelessly handled what should have been a delicate but accurate observation that Youkilis’s skills were declining. Turning the third base job over to Will Middlebrooks was the right move, and trading Youkilis to the White Sox was necessary. It was telling that interest was so lukewarm that they got nothing in return but two roster-fodder players who have already moved on from the organization.
It’s not as if Youkilis chose the Yankees over the Red Sox, who gave no indication of serious consideration about bringing him back. He chose his best offer, albeit one that oddly unites him with nemesis Joba Chamberlain and his noggin-seeking fastball, and that it happens to be with the Yankees is worthy of a shrug, not a boo. Besides, the above photo of his final moments in a Red Sox uniform before the inevitable trade serves as a reminder that he never wanted to leave in the first place. Don’t blame him. It’s how the process works.
And let’s admit it — you’d have “forgiven” Johnny Damon in a heartbeat had he chosen to return to the Sox when he was claimed on waivers late in the 2010 season, just as we would have had he ended up back on the roster before the all-important eight-year anniversary of the 2004 champs last year. We’re always pushovers for a happy reconciliations. When Vinatieri retires — if he ever retires — I suspect Foxborough will be much more welcoming then to the greatest clutch kicker the sport has known. It had better be.
But with Youkilis, there’s nothing to reconcile. He was a terrific player for a long time here, but injuries robbed him of some effectiveness, and a better player came along. That’s the cruel if natural progression of sports. The Red Sox moved on without him, and even now that he’s about to be a Yankee, it shouldn’t affect the perception of him here. Maybe you’ll boo when he comes back in pinstripes for the first time on July 19. But I’ll hear the boos as that old, familiar salute: “Youuuuuuuuk!” Here’s hoping he does too.