A lot of winning baseball teams have one guy on their team who’s kind of a dick. (On the field only, I’m talking — I don’t know these people.) They run hard, and play hard, and curse a lot, and get a lot of standing ovations for their “old school” manner of play. They get into fights, sometimes with their own teammates, but that’s because they’re “passionate.” When something bad happens, they make a huge show out of destroying water coolers, because they are super-intense and everyone needs to realize that. There has never been a correctly called third strike on these men, and when the home-plate ump deigns to call that fucking pitch a strike, are you kidding me?, the gentlemen in question don’t just get hot and pop off. They act as though their very honor as human beings has been called into question. They act like Harrison Ford in a movie in which someone announces the intention to harm his family.
A lot of these guys are quite good at baseball, and many of them play on winning teams. Are they good because they are this intense, or are they this intense because they’re good (and want to stay that way)? Do their teams win because of them, or do they just happen to show up on winning teams a lot? Those are a couple of causality/coincidence questions that will never be answered,1 but there does seem to be a decent correlation between the classic baseball hardass and a winning record. A.J. Pierzynski on the ’05 ChiSox Albert Belle Randy Johnson Jeff Kent I suppose you could go back to Ty Cobb, really. The 1990s Yankees had Paul O’Neill, who was probably the greatest possible match of attitude and city (New York will embrace a winning hardass like no other town).2 But second to New York and Paulie O’Intensity, in the modern era, are Kevin Youkilis and the 2004-12 Red Sox.
Except by your modern-day talking head types who just decide that yes, these guys are in fact the reason their teams win, no matter what anyone else or any actual fact says, and then sit back in their chairs and wait for the producer to inform them what it is that they think about the next subject.
Remember, this is the city where Jimmy Connors once called a chair umpire “an abortion,” twice, during this nation’s national tennis championship, and wasn’t given so much as a warning. Or even a “Could you please stop calling me an abortion, sir?”
In his prime, Youk was an elite hitter, and he fielded two positions quite well. His OPS+ from 2008 to 2010 were 144, 146, and 157 (all OBP-heavy), and over those three years he was among the five or so very best hitters in most ways that matter. He was one of the best players in the game. But what made him special was how weird it was that this was true.
Kevin Youkilis is one of the most oddly shaped human beings in professional athletics. His torso is giant and cylindrical — he looks like a cartoon poor person wearing a barrel. He is completely bald — like, aggressively bald, like he hates hair — except for a fiery red goatee bush that tumbles out of his face like Play-Doh from a fun factory. When he hits, he stands with his feet so close together the ump could tip him over with one quick index-finger jab to the sternum — an action that must have been tempting for many umps over the years — and as he raises the bat above his head and aims the barrel back toward the pitcher in a manner any Little League coach would surely curtail (“No, Kevin, not like that, that’s all wrong just is your dad here? I need to talk to him”), his hands are a foot apart on the handle of the bat, and he then slowly slides them toward each other as the pitcher moves through his delivery. It’s fucking insane. (“Kevin? Buddy? Hands together, buddy. See? Like this? Is your dad here?”) From this stevedore’s frame, alopecic head, and just completely goofy stance came a truly elite ballplayer. Who is also kind of a dick.
I imagine most people who are not Red Sox fans, or Billy Beane,3 hate Kevin Youkilis. He is Paul O’Neill reincarnated — intense, loud, aggressive, blustery. Always shouting at umps and always thinking he is right. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, has something to prove, etc., etc. I blame no one for disliking him. I get it. This particular breed of baseball player is liked only by those who root for the uniform he wears.4
Beane, remember, coveted Youkilis, as documented in his — Beane’s — seminal autobiography Moneyball: Or, How I Invented Computers and Changed Baseball Forever. He tried desperately to pry Youkilis out of the depths of the Sox’s farm system, referring to him in phone calls with Omar Minaya during the Cliff Floyd talks as “just a fat third baseman.” Youk and his high OBP led Beane to think of him as “Euclis: The Greek God of Walks.” You know all this already. I just like rehashing it, because then Theo came and started also coveting people with high OBPs and then my life got better. (One thing you might not know is that Youkilis’s physique led to the greatest joke in Red Sox manager history: Terry Francona, responding to a reporter’s use of the phrase “Greek God of Walks” about Youkilis, replied, “I’ve seen him in the shower. He isn’t the Greek God of anything.”)
My wife, who does not care about baseball, was once introduced to Paul O’Neill at a restaurant, came home, reported that she thought he was “very handsome,” and we got into one of the biggest fights of our entire relationship. I am very mature. (This was pre-2004, though, so that totally explains it.)
But Red Sox fans I think maybe love Youkilis a little more than other teams love their version of this guy. Because the truth is, in 2004, when Youkilis debuted, Boston desperately needed a dick on their team. The history of the franchise need not be rehashed here — there are one or two other places on the Web you can read about it if you are so inclined — but suffice it to say, a good old-fashioned hardass was a great and necessary component of the new breed of Red Sox. Youk was perfect. His dickiness and his talent were a match made in heaven.
I’m very sorry to see him go. I really love the guy. All Red Sox fans love him. And White Sox fans will love him, too, by the way, because I guarantee you he is so pissed at being traded he is going to go on a 1.100 OPS run from now until he gets hurt again. Which will be in mid-August.