The Red Sox begin a battle for the pennant tonight against the Astros. To kick off the action, Kevin Youkilis will throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park.
It was Christmas in 2006. I was sitting in the living room with my family and we were about to start opening gifts. As any nine-year-old would be, I was impatient. The first present I grabbed was a small tightly-wrapped box. As I pulled off the wrapping paper I caught a glimpse of a snow white baseball in a display case. It was a ball signed by none other than Boston Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis. I barely knew who he was at the time, but it didn’t matter. Youk instantly became my favorite player.
Back in 2006, Youkilis was still far from a household name. He had just completed his first full big league season and it was a successful season. He slashed .279/.381/.429 and accumulated 2.7 fWAR but he had only given us a glimpse at what was to come.
It was during the championship run of 2007 that Youkilis first made a long-lasting impact on Red Sox Nation. He won a gold glove while posting a 4.1 fWAR, a 124 wRC+, and – true to his nickname “the Greek God of Walks – a remarkable .390 OBP. But it’s not the numbers that I remember from that season. It was the weird stance that Youkilis favored. It was the unwavering intensity that Youkilis played with. It was the dirt-stained jerseys Youkilis always donned. And, of course, the towering home run Youkilis launched off the Coke Bottle in Game 7 of the ALCS. He was exactly the type of player that becomes a fan favorite in Boston and he was absolutely adored by the Fenway Faithful.
By the end of the 2007 season, Youkilis was well-known on Yawkey Way. But over the next three seasons, he would cement his legacy as a Red Sox legend. During that stretch, Youkilis slashed .308/.404/.560 with 75 homers and an ungodly 150 wRC+. Between 2008 and 2010, he finished in the top 10 on the AL MVP ballot twice and accumulated more fWAR than all but seven big leaguers. Outside of Albert Pujols, he was the best first baseman in all of baseball.
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I watched a highlight reel of Youkilis for the first time in a long time today. Much of the clip was as I would’ve imagined: there was the surprising display of range and overall excellent defense, there was the eclectic batting stance and drowning chants of “Yooooouuuuuuk.” But one thing that I had forgotten was how pretty his swing was. People overlook it because it was more fun to talk about how he waved the bat with his hands far apart before every pitch. However, despite the stance, Youk’s swing was as quiet, tight, and short to the ball as you’ll find.
Youkilis would play parts of two more seasons in a Red Sox uniform, but he would never reach the same heights (and the 2011 and 2012 Red Sox seasons are best left forgotten). His Red Sox career ended when Youk was unceremoniously traded to the White Sox for a bag of baseballs on June 25th, 2012. It marked the end of a great era in Red Sox baseball. Much of the core from the 2007-2009 Red Sox that I grew up watching was gone. Jason Varitek, Jonathan Papelbon, and Manny Ramirez were already gone and Josh Beckett would follow Youk out the door just a couple months later. The dismantling of that group began much earlier, but for me, Youk’s exit was the most painful.
Kevin Youkilis was the embodiment of why I loved baseball. He looked more like a plumber than a ballplayer, he always put his team first, and he never gave less than 110 percent.
Tonight, the Red Sox welcome Youkilis back to Fenway Park to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for game one of the ALCS against the Astros. Let us all drown Fenway Park in a ‘Yoooouuuuuuk’ chant once more.