Glory Days

Kevin Youkilis, The Greek God of Walks

As young and impressionable baseball fans, we all yearn for a hero, a favourite, an icon in whom to place hope and aspiration. Usually, that guy is a superstar with a swollen bank balance. Yet, for a few years in the late-2000s, my definitive baseball idol was a tough-looking grinder with a shaggy beard and peculiar batting stance. He was far from a natural, far from the paragon of celebrity. But, during his sensational if ultimately fleeting prime, Kevin Youkilis was one of the most compelling and intriguing players I’ve ever witnessed. You couldn’t help but root for him.

Sure, there were flashier players. There were even better players. But Youk’s painstaking dedication to the study and refinement of his game was unparalleled. From early childhood, the guy was perpetually told that he could not be great, that he could not succeed as a ballplayer. At various times, he was branded overweight; not athletic enough; and generally below average. Even after being drafted 243rd overall by the Boston Red Sox in 2001, Youkilis wasn’t taken seriously. Scouts disliked his defence, and thought he would struggle with wooden bats. Yet, Kevin overcame all those obstacles, and defeated all that prejudice, to carve for himself a very good career that was often inspiring, beguiling and deeply emotional. Ultimately, he never let any outsider restrict his insatiable hunger for success, nor quell his inexorable determination to be a great ballplayer, and that’s what I truly loved about Kevin Youkilis.

The image of Kevin at bat will stay with me forever. That trademark batting stance, with knees knocking together and bat twirled high above the head, like a guy trying to adjust his collar while sitting on the toilet. That familiar grimace of immense concentration, with the gentle agony of competition etched across his face. That humming crowd at the lyrical old ballpark on Yawkey Way, Yoooouuuukkk-in into the Boston night.

Inevitably, Youk would get his pitch, middle-in, and slash at it with that flat, smooth swing. The ball would cannon off his bat, propelled at a startling gradient, and go screeching towards the Green Monster. It was all so perfect; all so immersive; all so throughly descriptive of that special time in the history of baseball. It was a phenomena I will always cherish.

While Kevin Youkilis never had the most illustrious career, his emotional impact on fans had a rare and wonderful substance. A three-time All-Star with just 150 career home runs and a lifetime .281 batting average, Youk may not be remembered in fifty or sixty years time, but, for those who lived through his career, he will always remain a folk hero, whose minuscule peak was genuinely tremendous. Dubbed The Greek God of Walks by Billy Beane, Youkilis was indeed an unlikely star of the Moneyball age; his .382 career on-base percentage bettered only by 154 of over 18,000 men ever to grace a Major League diamond.

Kevin was a rookie on the historic 2004 Red Sox, an integral cog on the 2007 World Champions, and, ultimately, the heir to Manny Ramirez’ offensive crown in 2008 and beyond. He finished his career with brief stints as a White Sock and a Yankee, before retiring in 2013. A late bloomer, Youkilis won one Gold Glove, one Silver Slugger and finished third in American League MVP voting in 2008, likely his greatest season.

In the wider baseball environment, Kevin developed something of a bad reputation. He was a brawler who rubbed people up the wrong way. He sometimes said the wrong thing or criticised the wrong guy. He had a fiery temper which was later mistaken for a bad attitude. But, when analysing these facts, it’s important to ask why. Why did he charge the mound and scream at pitchers? Why did he speak so truthfully of teammates and rivals? Hell, why did he get so worked up out there? The answer is simple. Kevin Youkilis cared about the game of baseball; Kevin Youkilis cared about the Boston Red Sox; and, ultimately, Kevin Youkilis cared about success, perhaps more than anything else in the world. He never committed to a task with anything other than 100% effort, which I respect and admire immensely.

Kevin was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1979, the son of Carolyn and Mike Youkilis, who were proud of their Jewish heritage and faith. Kevin’s great-great-great grandfather, originally named Weiner, lived in what would become Romania, but fled to Greece to avoid Cossack anti-Semitism. However, after becoming homesick, Kevin’s ancestor moved back to his homeland but, to avoid jail, changed his name to Youkilis, a traditional Greek moniker. Later, Kevin’s grandfather and other relatives migrated to America, settling in parts of Ohio. The future ballplayer had a bar mitzvah aged 14, and was always a proud spokesman and role model for the Jewish community.

Youkilis attended Sycamore High School in Cincinnati, playing a number of different positions on the baseball team. However, upon his graduation in 1997, only two universities showed genuine interest in Kevin, who weighed over 220 pounds. Ultimately, he chose the University of Cincinnati, the alma mater of his father, and excelled as a very productive hitter, setting school records in home runs, walks, OBP and OPS. Yet, in that pre-Moneyball age, scouts were still ignorant of the true meaning of certain statistics, and over-reliant on their own hunches. With a less than athletic build, Youkilis didn’t pass the eye test, and he went largely undetected.

Nonetheless, one General Manager did covet Youkilis. In fact, Billy Beane set his heart on the kid, who figured to be the poster boy for the Oakland A’s’ iconoclastic philosophy. By now, you know the story well. Tasked with building a successful ballclub on a minuscule budget, Beane totally reevaluated the concept of winning games, challenging tradition and ultimately putting extreme faith in obscure statistical analysis to illuminate undervalued assets. Unlike most other General Managers, Beane didn’t care about a player’s appearance, athleticism or temperament. He cared only for their statistical potential. In this regard, Oakland became an island of misfit toys that somehow churned out division titles and playoff berths when it seemingly had no right. With a weight problem but exceptional scores in the statistics Oakland valued, Youkilis was the ultimate icon of Beane’s ethos. He subsequently became know as The Greek God of Walks within the Athletics’ war room as the 2001 draft approached.

However, the baseball climate during that era was so myopic, and so parochial, that Beane felt Youkilis would tumble to the very late rounds. After all, big teams like the Yankees or Dodgers had no time for such a pudgy kid. He simply wasn’t marketable. His face and body didn’t fit. Accordingly, Beane put Youkilis to the back of his mind and concentrated on drafting other targets in the earlier rounds, taking future Major Leaguers such as Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman and Neal Cotts.

Finally, in the eighth round, with future impact talent becoming thinner after more than 200 picks between 30 teams, Beane began to seriously consider selecting Youkilis. A number of teams passed over him again, until, with the 17th pick of the round, Boston took “the fat third baseman,” seven slots ahead of Oakland. The Red Sox took a chance on Youkilis, upon the cursory recommendation of scout Matt Haas, much to the chagrin of Beane, who attempted to acquire Kevin on several occasions whenever Oakland and Boston engaged in trade talks. Beane knew the Red Sox had stumbled upon a gem in the rough, even if Boston didn’t.

Youkilis’ talents bubbled to the fore in the Red Sox’ minor league system. In his debut season at Low-A Lowell, Kevin led the league with a ridiculous .512 OBP through 59 games, before gaining promotion to High-A Sarasota in 2002, when he was named the Red Sox’ Minor League Player of the Year for the second straight season.

However, Youkilis’ skills weren’t truly appreciated, or understood, in that pre-Moneyball realm, and it would take the appointment of visionary General Manager Theo Epstein for the Red Sox to begin seriously incorporating the third baseman into their future plans. A firm believer in the importance of OBP and OPS, Epstein was cut from the same mould as Beane in Oakland and, accordingly, the Red Sox front office began to really work on developing Youkilis, with a specific training regimen designed to aid his athleticism. As a result, Kevin continued to hit, continued to walk, and continued to get on base at a record pace. In fact, between Double-A and Triple-A in 2003, he tied a minor league record by reaching base in 71 consecutive games. By the end of that year, Youkilis was finally considered the top offensive prospect in the Red Sox system. Theo knew that he had a diamond.

When senior third baseman and reigning American League batting champ Bill Mueller landed on the Disabled List in May of 2004, Youkilis was promoted for his Major League debut. Kevin launched a home run off former Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen in his first game, and proceeded to hit .260/.367/.413 with 7 long balls and 35 RBI in limited playing time. Though receiving little game action, Youkilis was on the postseason roster as Boston vanquished its demons and finally won the World Series in 2004; phenomenal perseverance earning him a front row seat to history in the making.

The following year, 2005, was difficult for the 26-year old Youkilis, who was shuttled back and forth between Triple-A Pawtucket and Boston five different times. At the Major League level, Boston sought versatility, and Youk’s minor league options, coupled with a cadre of veteran infielders, saw him yo-yo between destinations. Nonetheless, when given an opportunity, Kevin still performed adequately, hitting .278 with a .400 OBP. He also saw an average of 4.6 pitches per plate appearance, best of any Red Sox hitter with at least 50 plate appearances, causing management to really take note.

When Boston was swept by Chicago in the 2005 ALDS, Theo Epstein resigned amid managerial infighting. However, when promised greater autonomy and space to complete his work by CEO Larry Lucchino, Epstein returned in time to oversee construction of the 2006 team. The unceremonious playoff defeat was a wake-up call for the Boston front office, which wanted to create a younger, more sustainable team. Yet, the wave of Red Sox Mania sweeping the globe spawned what Epstein termed “The Monster,” an unrealistic interpretation of the Sox as a bulletproof juggernaut. Cajoled by ownership into placating an ever-expanding fanbase by keeping star players, Epstein’s flexibility was greatly impinged. For a period, the Red Sox became a lite version of the Yankees; an organisation expected to win every year, at all costs, in exciting style. Epstein knew that was unrealistic, especially with an ageing roster, but his bosses demanded that stars like Manny Ramirez stay, no matter what. Accordingly, Epstein looked for subtle ways to tweak his roster; small ways to make the Red Sox more sustainable, while appeasing the newfound expectations. One such way was embracing the core of vibrant homegrown prospects graduating through the farm system, with Kevin Youkilis a main beneficiary.

When Kevin Millar’s contract expired, Epstein decided to make Youkilis his everyday big league first baseman. After all, Youk had more than demonstrated his worth in parts of two seasons with Boston, and Millar’s departure was an ideal opportunity to get the kid’s considerable attributes into regular action. Youkilis didn’t disappoint. In 2006, his first full Major League campaign, Kevin hit .279/.381/.429 with 13 home runs and 72 RBI. Moreover, he led the entire American League by seeing 4.43 pitches per plate appearance on average, and by hitting a line drive 24% of the time. In short, he was incredibly disciplined, with a remarkable understanding of the strike zone, and a sensational ability to hit the ball hard when finally a pitch was to his liking.

In 2007, those skills coalesced finely into a sensation season, during which Youkilis became a crucial cog in a Red Sox roster endowed with fellow farm graduates Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Jonathan Papelbon. Youkilis played flawless defence at first base, winning a Gold Glove following a historic streak of consecutive errorless games, while, at the plate, he improved to .288/.390/.453 with 16 home runs, 35 doubles and 83 RBI. With men on base, Youk hit .340 with a .435 OBP, as fans began to adore his inimitable style. That year, Youkilis became a proven run producer, typically hitting fifth behind David Ortiz and Ramirez on a Red Sox team that beat Los Angeles, Cleveland and Colorado to win its second World Series in three years. During that emotional run, Youkilis became a household name in the baseball world.

When the Red Sox traded Manny midway through the 2008 season, removing the straw that stirred the Boston drink for the best part of a decade, a void was left at Fenway Park. However, Youkilis stepped forward to fill the breech, becoming a genuine superstar and the Red Sox’ leader with perhaps his greatest single season. Youk hit .312/.390/.569 with 29 home runs, 43 doubles and 115 RBI. That year, he finally made the All-Star team, and finished third in the American League MVP voting, behind Minnesota’s Justin Morneau and eventual winner Pedroia, who teamed with Youkilis to form the new, gritty face of the Boston Red Sox. That 2008 incarnation of The Olde Towne Team has a very special place in my heart, and I will never forget the incredible journey of following that team pitch-by-pitch, as it came within smelling distance of a second successive pennant, only to lose in seven agonising ALCS games to Tampa Bay.

Youkilis and his cast of homegrown teammates enjoyed a strong run for the next few years, before things gradually turned sour on Yawkey Way. The Sox were swept out of the 2009 playoffs at the first hurdle, and key decision-makers soon lost sight of the very philosophy which had brought the initial success. By 2012, the Fenway juggernaut was a spluttering shell of its former self. Terry Francona was replaced by Bobby Valentine; Epstein left for Chicago; and, midway through an ignominious year, Youkilis was ousted largely for his public disagreements with crumbling management.

Youk played out the string with the White Sox and Yankees, never amounting to much as injuries and age encroached on his ability, but he always remained one of my favourites; a bulwark of a different age who represented the Red Sox during their greatest era, and whose pride in that time and that team was ferocious and unwavering.

Some people grew to dislike Kevin during the autumn of his career, when everything was a struggle and he felt slighted by a game changing for the worse before his eyes. But I loved, admired and respected The Greek God of Walks, because he harboured the same views as me, and, more importantly, because he was a hero during my golden childhood of baseball obsession.

Many fans have short memories, in the capricious whim of modernity, but heroes never die and memories never fade. Accordingly, Kevin Youkilis is hereby remembered, as one of my all-time favourite players, and one of my all-time favourite men. They simply don’t make them like Youk anymore, and that’s a crying shame.

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