Kevin Youkilis retires; remembering the Red Sox great

Former Boston Red Sox first and third baseman Kevin Youkilis, a two-time World Series champion with the team, announced his retirement Thursday. While the final three years of his career were spent in Chicago, New York and Japan, Boston fans will always remember the burly slugger in a dirt-stained Red Sox uniform, helmet trimmed with pine tar, sweating to beat the band.

So much ink has been spilled on Youkilis changing the way young players are evaluated…how, despite not looking like a ballplayer or having much power to speak of, he reached base in 71 consecutive Minor League games. He was definitely eligible for Billy Beane‘s summer league team; the GM gushed over him in MoneyballOBP became a thing.

But it was Youkilis’ natural connection to the fans that made him special to New England.

Jackie MacMullan wrote:

“He does not look like an MVP candidate; more a refrigerator repairman, a butcher, the man selling hammers behind the counter at the True Value hardware store.”

Youkilis was the quintessential underdog, which made him a perfect fit for a Red Sox fan base dealing with a self-inflicted inferiority complex despite the team’s 21st century success.

His career counting numbers aren’t particularly impressive; it took a while for him to become a Red Sox regular, but when he did, Youkilis had a six-year run that ranks among the best in team history.

In ’06, the third baseman moved to first and became one of the best glove men at the position in the Majors. He was rewarded with a Gold Glove in 2007 and was a major force in Boston’s seven-game win over the Indians in that year’s ALCS, collecting 14 hits, bashing three homers, and scoring 10 runs. Youk had found his power stroke.

By 2008, he was a bona fide star. He was third in the MVP vote that year (many say he deserved it over teammate Dustin Pedroia), slashing .312/.390/.569 with 29 homers, 115 RBI, 43 doubles and 91 runs scored in a year the Red Sox moved on from Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz was plagued by a wrist injury. Though his squad fell short in another Game 7 in ’08, he followed up with a brilliant 2009: .305/.413/.548, thumping 27 homers and scoring 99 runs for another playoff team.

Youkilis had evolved into a Boston institution with his play, his thoroughly weird batting stance, and the fact Fenway Park turned into a karaoke bar at every time Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” blared over the speakers as he strode to the plate.

In 2010, Youkilis was on the way to another solid season (.307/.411/.564) when he tore an abductor muscle in his thumb and missed nearly two months. Projected out over 600 at-bats, Youkilis was on track for 26 homers and a career-high 106 runs scored.

We didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of the end.

With the acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres came a shift to third base and, despite another All-Star selection, an injury-plagued season that resulted in the lowest batting average of his career. And as the 2011 Sox fell on their collective faces, the banged up 32-year old fell out of the lineup.

We could talk about 2012 and his departure, but I’d prefer to remember the good times. For a guy who took a ton of pitches at the plate, an inherently boring exercise in efficiency, Youk’s Boston tenure was so much fun. From the success of the team, his own memorable personal accomplishments and his fiery play that ticked off the opposition, Youk was our guy.

Few Red Sox have ever been as popular as Youkilis at the height of his powers. And so, as he steps away from the game, I prefer to pilot my time machine back to 2008, to remember when the “man selling hammers behind the counter at the True Value hardware store” took over as the star of the team and held Fenway Park in the webbing of his glove.

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