I already miss Kevin Youkilis.
It’s not because I think the Red Sox are worse without him or that he was still the great hitter that he was in recent years. But he was a tough player. Youk was a guy that had one goal in mind: get on base. He was the “Greek God of Walks”, as the book Moneyball recalls. He was the guy that always wanted to do what was best for the team. When he was asked about getting benched in the 2007 World Series because of the removal of the DH in the National League park, he shrugged it off, saying that worrying about playing time was the least of his concerns.
It never seemed like Youk would take games off. He went as hard as he could every game and at every at-bat. He battled pitchers, almost never struck out, made every plate appearance a war of attrition. Winning and losing were life and death to him. He was one of those guys, like Dustin Pedroia after him, that you loved if he was on your team but hated playing against him. Every team needs a guy like that.
I called his batting stance “The Scorpion”: Hands spread apart, feet close together, and his bat aimed straight at the pitcher, coiled to strike. I couldn’t help but smile watching him step into the batter’s box.
But most importantly, I’m going to miss Youk because he was one of my guys.
When I was 10, I didn’t have any favorite teams. I was in Stillwater, Oklahoma, not exactly a sports hotbed outside of Oklahoma State. My father didn’t really follow professional sports. All he cared about were his beloved Texas A&M Aggies. So I watched that with him. But that year, and I can’t explain it even after all this time, I began this weird fascination with the city of Boston. I don’t know what it was about that place, but it seemed like a magical place, everything I had ever dreamed of.
As a free agent fan, I started following Boston sports. It was baseball season at the time and I became entrenched in the culture of the Red Sox. I learned about Teddy Ballgame, Carl Yastrzemski, Carlton Fisk. I also learned about the Curse of the Bambino, 1918, Buckner, Bucky Bleepin’ Dent, and I learned that I hated the Yankees, which to be honest probably cemented my love of the Red Sox. I didn’t have the same torturous relationship with the team that a lot of Boston fans did. After all, I was 10 and I didn’t have this team passed down through generations of my family. But that didn’t make Aaron Boone’s homer hurt any less to me.
But for all my knowledge and everything I learned about this team, for a while it never felt like it was mine. It felt like I was borrowing it from someone else. These players, I loved them as much as anyone else, but they were guys that were already there.
That all changed in 2004. A lot of turnover had happened in the years before that magical season and when the Red Sox traded Nomar, who I felt was going to be on the team forever, it signaled that this was finally a new team. And the guy who came up from the minors that began to make a difference for the Red Sox was Kevin Youkilis. He was my first guy. He was out of the Red Sox farm system, I had heard about what he was doing in Triple A, and now he was in the big leagues for my team.
The concept of a fan having ownership of a team is nebulous at best (unless you’re a Packers fan and bought one of the stock shares. Those are a scam, but I’d do it in a heartbeat if the Red Sox, Patriots, or Thunder ever did it). For me the Red Sox became “my team” once it wasn’t just a collection of guys that had always been there. Things like Youk’s call-up, the emergence of Big Papi, and the acquisition of Curt Schilling did a lot to change how I felt about a team I already loved. I had people to root for as well as the team. It’s why my favorite current players are Pedroia, Papi, and Jacoby Ellsbury. Pedroia and Ellsbury came up through the Red Sox system. They were my guys.
The same thing happened with me and the Patriots. I followed the team, I loved the team, I wanted them to win. But the shift that came when Drew Bledsoe got hurt and Tom Brady, a guy the Patriots drafted after I started following them, made a big difference in my investment. Brady was my guy (It didn’t hurt that he developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, either).
For the Oklahoma City Thunder it was completely different. The entire team immediately became my guys just by existing. Oklahoma was no longer a professional sports wasteland. I wanted that team to succeed because they were my hometown heroes now. I knew nothing about the Sonics, other than who they became and that they had drafted Kevin Durant. But they came into my community and dared me not to love them. To watch this team grow up and mature and excel the game they love has been a feeling I will never forget. After the Spurs series, I felt just as invincible as I’m sure the team did. After the Finals, when ABC showed the saddest thirty seconds in television history when a sobbing KD embraced his mother, I wanted to cry with him. Oklahomans all own this team and the collective pride in the Thunder makes the ups and downs worthwhile.
All it takes is having one of your guys make a difference on a team to change how you feel about that organization. From the moment I started following my beloved Boston Red Sox, I always wanted them to win every game. But it meant so much more to see my guys be the ones to make it happen.
Youk hit a triple in his last at bat for the Red Sox. It was one swing that captured his entire career. He saw the perfect pitch, ripped it as hard as he could, and he never stopped hustling. He knew that this was his last home game in Boston, but he didn’t give up, and he gave every ounce of effort he had that day. The standing ovation he received was every bit earned.
So as I sit here writing in my Dustin Pedroia t-shirt jersey, waiting on my Will Middlebrooks (Youk’s replacement and my newest “guy”) “Wake and Rake” shirt to arrive, I look over at the Chicago White Sox, and see Youk revitalized and hitting the way he used to. It brings back shades of when he first came up and I knew that this was my team.
Thank you, Youk. You were, and will always be, my guy. Thanks for giving me the Red Sox.