On May 15, 2004 seven months after one of the lowest points in Red Sox history and five months before the undisputed apex Kevin Youkilis made his Major League debut. The Sox were playing the Blue Jays at the artist formerly known as SkyDome, and Youkilis batted eighth and played third base for the recently-DL'ed Bill Mueller.
Youk was a guy who Boston fans were already familiar with before his first taste of Major League life. We knew him as one of the strongest prospects in the Sox system. We knew him as one of the faces of the Moneyball phenomenon. We knew him for his nickname: The Greek God of Walks. And of course, we knew him from his Oscar-nominated cameo in 1994's Milk Money, starring Ed Harris and pre-collagen Melanie Griffith.
In the second inning, the 25-year-old Youkilis took the plate for his long-awaited first career at bat . . . and promptly popped up to shortstop. But he got another chance in the fourth, and this time, drove a 2-1 pitch over the left field wall for his first hit a home run. However, what happened afterwards was far more memorable than the blast itself.
Youkilis rounded the bases and jogged back to the dugout, surely looking to celebrate the realization of a lifelong dream. Instead, he found nothing. Teammates, coaches, bat boys everyone ignored him. It was the old school silent treatment, and Youkilis was the perfect target. With no other options, he walked down to the end of the bench, where he sat awkwardly for a few seconds, until the Sox eventually called off the gag and trickled down to congratulate their newest teammate. It was hilarious. A uniquely memorable start to a uniquely memorable Red Sox career. One that came to a predictable, but nonetheless emotional end yesterday afternoon at Fenway.
In retrospect, the funniest thing about Kevin Youkilis' original nickname the Greek God of Walks will always be that Youkilis isn't even Greek. However, the most ironic thing about the name is that what ultimately endeared Youk to fans here in Boston is that he was just about the furthest thing from a God.
Nomar. Pedro. Manny. Papi. Those were baseball Gods. Those were guys who when at their best lived and operated on such a different level from the rest of humanity that it was hard to even fathom. They were larger than life. They were our idols.
Youk was our buddy.
The fire. The anger. The attitude. The chip on his shoulder. The beard. The endless array of Irish driving caps. They say when two people are married long enough, they start looking, dressing and acting alike. Well, after nearly a decade in Boston, Kevin Youkilis born and raised in Cincinnati looked and acted like a dead ringer for any lifelong Bostonian. Where most athletes around here can't wait for the season to end so they can escape to their home bases in California, Arizona, Texas and the Dominican, Youk was based here. He loved Boston. He was Boston. He embraced the city as much as we embraced him.
And we loved him for everything he brought to the game: The versatility. The hustle. The defense. The brutal abuse of the Monster. The rings. The All-Star Games. The Gold Glove. For helping bridge the gap from 2004 to 2007. For giving everything he had every time he was out there. What made Kevin Youkilis so especially fun to root for was that feeling that you were rooting for a friend. That he was so real and accessible. That he was a guy who could have played on your high school team. Hell, a guy who could have played on your 30-and-over beer league softball team.
He wasn't blessed with speed, power or ridiculous athleticism. He surely wasn't blessed with a superior physique. He was just a grinder. A guy who gave everything he had because he didn't have the luxury of doing it any other way. Even in 2008 and 2009, when he was without question one of the best all-around players in the American League, it still felt like we were rooting for an underdog. Maybe because we'd seen him as that dumpy 25-year-old. That we knew how hard he'd worked to not only get to that level, but to stay there. Whatever it was, we never took his success for granted.
Sure, he wasn't perfect. He pissed people off: teammates, coaches, opponents. And over the last few years, as his body wore down, that fiery attitude that once endeared him to Boston became an issue behind the scenes. We still don't know exactly how bad it was, but it was it was there. As a result of that, and the emergence of Will Middlebrooks, it was time for him to go. We all know that. We've been saying it for months. But even if the time was right for Youk and the Sox to part ways, that doesn't make it any easier to say goodbye.
But yesterday, we did.
Yesterday, eight years and change after that home run at SkyDome, 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis took the plate for his long-awaited final at-bat in a Red Sox uniform.
With one on, and two out, he drove a 2-1 pitch into right center field, and all things considered, it should have been caught. By major league standards, it was a pretty routine play. But as it turns out, that's part of the beauty. Because by major league standards, very few batters run their hardest after hitting somewhat routine fly balls. In most cases, when you see a ball fall in front of a blinded outfielder like Youk's shot did yesterday, you're looking at a stand up double. At a guy who jogs lightly around first, and then kicks into gear once the ball hits the grounded. But in typical Youkilis fashion, he was on full blast from the second the ball hit the bat. By the time the ball hit the ground, he was chugging past second and on his way to third, where he eventually slid in (with all the grace that we've come to expect from Youk) for an unlikely triple.
This time, as he walked back to the dugout, there was nothing that resembled silence of that first home run in Toronto. This time, the whole team waited on the top step of the dugout. Instead of cold shoulders, they met him with hugs. With tears. As 35,000 fans said goodbye the only way they knew how. With an unbelievable standing ovation.
With a legendary round of applause for a legendary member of the Boston Red Sox.
He may not have been a God, but ultimately, that made everything he accomplished here all the more impressive. And all the more fun to root for.