Bobby Valentine won’t have the Greek God of Walks to walk all over anymore.
As the weekend approached it became a question of “to whom,” not “when.” Especially when Valentine, asked after the Kevin Youkilis situation Saturday, was quoted as saying he wanted to be able to put the people he liked into the lineup. Which could have been taken any number of ways considering the likely precise moment when the numbering began on Youkilis’s Boston days. The April moment in which Valentine threw him under the proverbial bus. There are few things more liable to deflate any proud baseball player, and that’s what Youkilis has been every day he’s played in the Olde Towne Team’s silks, than the hour in which your manager hangs the no-heart tag upon you.
I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.
With those April words, Valentine detonated a stink bomb, for which he was compelled to apologise to Youkilis the day after. Just over two months later, though, Youkilis and about $5.5 million to cover the rest of his 2012 salary are going to the Chicago White Sox, whose third base production this season has been so addled (an injury to regular Brent Morel, a name-only presence since from Orlando Hudson) that a pariplegic scrubwoman would seem an improvement.
In physical terms, Valentine was right about the hard-nosed but oft-injured Youkilis, who’s had two previous seasons marred by injuries. In emotional or spiritual terms, however, Valentine was even more wrong than the record executive who earned eternal infamy, fifty years earlier, by telling the manager of the Beatles that groups of guitars were on the way out.
This is hardly the first time Valentine has tangled with players who just so happen to be fan favourites, and it probably won’t be the last. But you wonder whether his software was ever programmed to acknowledge that it’s one thing to observe a player’s injury history has drained his plate and field production, but it’s something else entirely to question his heart. Unless, of course, Valentine is one of those creatures to whom physical injury equals the dissipation of intestinal fortitude.
Dustin Pedroia, maybe the only Red Sox player beyond David Ortiz whose heart could be called the equal of Youkilis’s, was merely the most public of Red Sox springing to Youkilis’s defence.
“He pushes me every day, and I want to go out and play hard every day just like he does,” Pedroia told reporters, not long after Youkilis—who played Sunday and nailed an RBI triple in what proved his final Red Sox plate appearance, prompting a loud Fenway Park ovation and Youkilis being nudged out for a curtain call. “You know, he’s always out there doing his best to try to help us win. I appreciate him so much for that.”
Youkilis’s heir apparent, Will Middlebrooks, began to shine as Youkilis returned from the disabled list and finally seemed to earn the starting job. Coming off a lower back ailment that further cut into his once-formidable plate stroke and field prowess, Youkilis struggled in games while Middlebrooks made himself a presence. Middlebrooks has profited from, among other things, the counsel of Youkilis himself.
In the middle of a season in which the Red Sox have lingered within reach of contention but turned into a clubhouse with a reputation for dissent that Ortiz felt compelled to dispel testily in recent days, Youkilis shepherding his successor must have seemed a throwback to the former Red Sox clubhouse, the one where cowboying up held hands with a genuine camaraderie. Maybe they took the hint when Youkilis took that curtain call, a call to which Valentine, who may or may not be re-awakening himself, is said to have nudged him to take. It’s said that the players signed the lineup card and tucked it into the bric-a-brac that will be shipped to Youkilis with the White Sox.
“He’s been awesome. He’s helped me out so much,” Middlebrooks himself said of the Greek God of Walks, a misnomer of a nickname if ever there was one—not because of the walks but because Youkilis is Jewish, not Greek. (His Romanian great-great-great grandfather, who once moved to Greece to avoid being conscripted into an army chock full of anti-Semitic Cossacks, returned to Romania but changed the family name to Youkilis to avoid the army and prison.) “Not just baseball, but off the field, too, just how to handle everything.”
“Working with Will and Ryan [Kalish] and all the young guys,” said Youkilis, for his own part, “is fun to help them out, because sometimes they need it. It’s fresh to them and they’re going to make mistakes like veterans make mistakes on the field. They look up to the veterans. And some of the mistakes that we made earlier on in our career, we had a veteran come up to us and tell us what to do.
“When you play this game you’re an ambassador to the game and the players,” he continued, “so you have to be that way and you can’t be selfish if you’re not playing. You’ve got to teach these guys how to play the game because someday we’re all going to be retired and these guys are going to be playing. Then there will be guys after them, so if they can pass along the messages to the guys after them, that’s the key. I was taught that in 2004 by some great players here and I’m just trying to pass along the knowledge that was given to me.”
Spoken like a player who sees the end of the line, if you didn’t know who was saying it. Youkilis’s new White Sox teammate, captain Paul Konerko, isn’t exactly ready to think of Youkilis as the old man down the road. “There is no way we are not a better team with Kevin Youkilis,” Konerko told a reporter. “He is just too good of a player and has been through all the wars and is still relatively a young guy. We just have to keep him on the field, If that is the case, it could be one of the bigger steals of the season.”
In return, the Red Sox receive a relief pitcher named Zach Stewart and a jack-of-all-trades (he’s played every position except catcher) named Brett Lillibridge. Stewart has shown up in eighteen games for the White Sox and has a 1-2 won-lost record with a 6.00 earned run average, a 1.50 walks and hits per inning pitched rate, and twelve hits per nine innings pitched; he was down on the farm at Charlotte when he was pulled from a scheduled start as the deal was done. All those numbers hover around his career averages. Lillibridge has played in 48 games for the White Sox and has a .283 on-base percentage, a .190 slugging percentage, four walks, and eleven hits in 70 plate appearances to show for it; lifetime (he’s played parts of four and a third seasons), his OBP is .283 and his slugging, .358, but he is considered a speed threat when he does reach base.
Bigger steals of the season? Assuming Youkilis returns to full health and anything resembling his formerly customary production, White Sox general manager Ken Williams could end up looking like a genius. No matter what continuing production they get from Middlebrooks, and it’s not wrong to say they needed room for him here and now, the Red Sox concurrently may look like classless jerks for the way they permitted one of their signature players—perhaps not even close to a future Hall of Famer but a useful, valuable, sometimes great player and a no-questions-asked clubhouse leader—to be demeaned, demoted, and then dealt for a pair of (thus far) no-names.
I’m reminded of Rafael Santana, once a useful New York Mets shortstop. He wasn’t much of a hitter, but he was a meat-and-potatoes shortstop who got where he was supposed to go in the field and came up big for the Mets’ 1986 champions, setting National League Championship Series records for putouts, assists, and chances accepted by a shortstop.
Met fans loved the guy. For that matter, Santana was one of the clean contingency among the rambunctious 1986 Mets. But with a comer named Kevin Elster ready to come up to stay, Santana became expendable after the 1987 season. And the Mets’ then-general manager Joe McIlvane, knowing Santana had originally been a Yankee prospect and loved New York, reached across the bridge around the winter meetings to see if the Yankees had interest. As it turned out, the Yankees needed an extra shortstop.
“We’re not looking to hold the Yankees up here,” McIlvane told the Yankees’ then-general manager, Lou Piniella. “We just want to take care of Raffy.” Nobody on or aware of the Mets ever questioned Santana’s heart.
The two GMs made a deal that would send Santana to the Yankees for three minor leaguers. The only thing that came close to killing the deal was George Steinbrenner’s bid to force the Mets to include Gregg Jefferies, at the time a superphenom who’d just been named minor league player of the year, and a player Piniella knew the Mets wouldn’t include even if the Yankees agreed to include Don Mattingly. Piniella managed to prevail, and the Mets were able to make good on “taking care of” Santana in a sensible way that showed him respect for what he’d meant to the Mets even for a brief while.
The Red Sox could have learned from the Santana deal. How they did take care of Youkilis, unfortunately, throws back to another Red Sox past. A past prior to that during which Youkilis was part of something special. A past that once helped keep the Red Sox from winning the way their present, if the demeaning, demotion, and dealing of Youkilis is any indicator, may yet seem to do.