Kevin Youkilis had a temper.
That much was obvious enough when he nearly got into a brawl in the dugout with Manny Ramirez in 2008, or when he charged the mound and threw his helmet after being hit by Detroit’s Rick Porcello in 2009. He was fiery and pissed off and sometimes mean about his at-bats. He grimaced and sweat and dug in for every pitch he could possibly see. In 292 at-bats, he saw a 3-0 count and never once swung the bat at the next pitch. He was in for more and not looking to cheat himself out of a possible hit.
That’s the general picture of Kevin Youkilis, the baseball player, I have in my head. But for specific memories, I usually zoom in on a more genial one that showed Kevin Youkilis, the guy who got his kicks playing a kids’ game.
The Mets were in Boston to face the Red Sox on a Friday night. About 3,000 miles away, I was sitting in R.T. O’Sullivan’s in Mesa, Ariz., with friends to watch the game — the 4 p.m. start always meant an excuse to head out of work a little early for happy hour, plenty of appetizers and a taste of home via the Sox.
In the fifth inning, Johan Santana pitched inside to Youkilis and clipped him on the elbow. Youkilis dropped the bat, grabbed his arm, and walking towards first base with a smile, he let Santana know what he thought:
“Shit, man. That hurt!”
Santana took exception to this, and shouted at Youkilis to get to first base. But Youkilis immediately appeared contrite, and tried to explain that, for once, he wasn’t ridiculously furious. He was legitimately impressed at how hard Santana had thrown on that last pitch.
“He wanted me to go down to first base and not joke around I guess, but I wasn’t mad,” Youkilis told MLB.com’s Ian Browne that day. “I’ve been hit so many times. You joke around one time, I guess, and pitchers don’t like it. All I know is, when things happen, all anyone ever told me in my career is that I shouldn’t get so serious.”
He did get hit a lot — 16 times that season, 104 times in his career. He finished in the top 10 in the American League every year in that category from 2007 to 2012. No Red Sock was ever hit more than he was — 86 times while wearing that red B on a navy blue hat. He crowded the plate in his weird, twisting batting stance, helmet brim tipped down, snarling from behind a giant goatee, practically inviting the pitcher to hit him.
But it was just another way to get on base. As a guy who spent three years in the minor leagues, only to then be yo-yo’d between Boston and Pawtucket throughout 2004 and ’05, he never took any at-bat for granted, each one a chance to get on base and give the next batter a shot at an RBI. That stubborn resistance to giving in rendered him infuriating to opposing fans and endeared him to everyone in New England.
He was a rookie on the ’04 team and a centerpiece to the 2007 World Series champions. He came up as a third baseman and quickly transitioned into a gold glove first baseman. He switched back to third whenever needed. He played second base and left field when asked. And he stayed up at the plate and drove out those at-bats all the way through.
It wasn’t easy on the body, and starting in 2010 he started to get hurt, missing significant time with one thing or another. Eventually, he was traded to the White Sox, a casualty during Bobby Valentine’s hellish 2012 at the helm of the Red Sox. And after just 28 games in an injury-riddled 2013 season in New York, he was off to Japan for what became a year-long farewell tour.
The news of his retirement bubbled out quietly after the World Series, more a reaffirmation of the inevitable than earth-quaking news. Few go from playing that much to playing that little in the Majors and come back to make another dent in the game, even someone as tenacious and stubborn as Youkilis had been for so much of his career.
That temper that occasionally flared was just one of the side effects of the determination he required to make it as far as he did in the first place, from a forgotten 8th round draft pick to an indispensible piece of a championship team, a player who became as synonymous with the tough, resolute Red Sox in his own way as the team’s biggest stars — David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, on down the baseline.
But along with all that, there was always an admiration and appreciation of how hard the game can be to play. Sometimes, that meant a helmet went flying in the dugout after a nine-pitch flyout. Sometimes, it was a double to bring a runner in scoring position home.
And sometimes, it was the smile that accompanied absorbing another fastball to the body, the stinging reminder of what it took to get on base.