Kevin Youkilis: Where Does He Rank Among Most Beloved Red Sox of Past 10 Years?
Youk spent nearly nine seasons at Fenway. He became a go-to favorite player for Sox fans—the kind of guy whose fandom of indicated both knowledge of the team and respect for Boston’s “Dirt Dog” tradition.
So where does Youkilis rank among the most beloved Red Sox players of the last 10 years?
There have been a number of them. Even on a list of 10 players there are sure to be notable exclusions (for which I will take full responsibility).
Read on to find out this humble writer’s opinion—and to weigh in whether you agree or disagree.
10. Manny Ramirez
The “Manny being Manny” drama could be an unwanted headache, but it never interfered with Ramirez's ability to produce.
In seven full seasons with the Red Sox, Manny averaged .313 with 36 home runs and 114 RBI. He made his eight-year, $160 million contract look like a bargain (not to mention a big free-agent deal better than any ever handed out by Theo Epstein).
In a way, his cavalier attitude carried him to those video-game numbers. The Fenway pressure cooker has been (and continues to be) the undoing of many promising and established stars. But not Manny.
The daily circus of playing in Boston never disrupted his abilities as a hitting savant. While his departure was an acrimonious one, most Sox fans would smile if you asked them to name their favorite Manny moment.
His in-game bathroom break in the Green Monster. A wildly unnecessary diving cutoff catch. Carrying a tiny American flag into the outfield the day he became a U.S. citizen. Any of his many long, strange trips to a fly ball.
The Manny Ramirez era in Boston had its ups and downs, but it was well worth the price of admission.
9. Kevin Millar
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The Red Sox needed an emotional leader in their early 2000s quest to get back to the postseason and reverse the curse. Enter Kevin Millar.
He reversed the trend of fickle Red Sox players by making himself available to anyone with a microphone. He implored teammates and fans to “cowboy up” in 2003 and came up with the “idiots” moniker in 2004.
He got every last ounce out of his natural abilities too. He clubbed 25 home runs in 2003 and another 18 in 2004 while playing a surprisingly adept first base.
And when all hope was lost with the Red Sox in a three-game hole, trailing 4-3 in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the ’04 ALCS, Millar turned the tide by doing...nothing.
With the Sox on the precipice of elimination, he had the stones to draw a walk against Mariano Rivera. The rest is Red Sox history.
Which Millar will be a major part of for the rest of his life.
8. Johnny Damon
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It was sad to see Caveman Jesus leave for the Bronx following the 2005 season, but his four years patrolling center field at Fenway were memorable ones.
First, there was the production. He never batted lower than .273 or had an OBP under .345. In 2004, he hit 20 home runs and had 94 RBI—batting out of the leadoff spot.
That was merely a prelude to his postseason heroics.
During Boston’s comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS, Damon scored the winning run in Game 5’s 14-inning marathon. Two nights later, he hit two home runs—including a grand slam—and drove in six in a 10-3 rout in Game 7.
And he gave it his all. He threw his body around the outfield with wild abandon—who can forget his head-on-head collision with Damian Jackson during the 2003 ALDS?—yet never played fewer than 145 games a season while in Boston.
Damon was endearingly happy-go-lucky, perhaps more so than any Boston player other than Kevin Millar. If there was an epitome of the “Idiot Era,” it would be Damon.
After all, it’s the name of his autobiography.
7. Bill Mueller
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There’s something about third basemen in Boston.
Tim Naehring. John Valentin. Kevin Youkilis. Mike Lowell. And now Will Middlebrooks.
Bill Mueller was in Boston for just three years, but like his past and future peers, it was as if he were born to play there.
There was his Silver Slugger-winning season of 2003. He won the American League batting title (.326) while hitting 19 home runs with 85 RBI and 45 doubles.
He remains the only player in major league history with two grand slams in a single game from opposite sides of the plate—a feat he achieved against the Rangers on July 29, 2003.
Not bad for someone batting primarily in the bottom third of the lineup.
If Mueller’s 2003 was highlighted by statistical brilliance, 2004 was all about coming up big when his team needed it the most.
With Boston’s season teetering on the edge on July 24, Mueller hit a walk-off, two-run home run against Mariano Rivera in a game that featured a memorable bench-clearing brawl.
If you talk to Red Sox fans and analysts today, they’ll fondly think back to that game as the turning point of 2004. And Mueller wasn’t done victimizing Rivera that season.
After Dave Roberts stole second in Game 4 of the ALCS, Mueller slapped a fastball back up the middle to drive Roberts home and knot the score at 4-all. Boston would not lose again that postseason.
6. Trot Nixon
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As far as Red Sox personal honors go, being the inspiration for the phrase “Boston Dirt Dog” has got to be up there.
Such is the case for Christopher Trotman Nixon.
His career didn’t quite go the way folks thought it would when Baseball America named him the 1993 High School Player of the Year (ahead of Alex Rodriguez, among others). But he wasn’t a flop either.
From 2001 to 2003, Nixon averaged 26 home runs and 90 RBI while never failing to lay out in right field when the occasion called for it. Injuries took their toll on him during his final three years at Fenway (2004-06), but that didn’t prevent him from being a significant part of the team.
He fit into the “Idiots” group of 2004 with a mohawk hairstyle that fans still remember. He fought and argued on behalf of teammates. And he could still play, as evidenced by his .357 batting average and three RBI during the 2004 World Series.
I really did care about this organization. I did care about this town. I think this town has been unbelievable for my family and me. Absolutely unbelievable.
For all the love that Red Sox fans showed Nixon, he loved them just as much right back.
5. Kevin Youkilis
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He evolved from a Moneyball cult figure to one of the better all-around players in the game—a corner infielder who could hit for average and power, get on base and play Gold Glove defense.
Perhaps more telling than his statistics or the hardware he collected was how Youkilis played the game. As the Red Sox became more and more of a big-market power, he was a reminder that the Dirt Dog spirit of the team’s underdog years would never die.
Youkilis cared. He treated each strikeout or missed opportunity with men on base like it was the end of the world. It looked like those moments were just as tough on him—if not tougher—as they were for the fans that were watching.
For all the acrimony that has built up this season, starting in spring training, you could tell that both Sunday’s crowd and Youkilis really needed that rousing send-off.
Youk accomplished too much to deserve anything less.
4. Tim Wakefield
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No. 49 spent 17 years with the Red Sox. Seventeen!
He was a starter, a long reliever, a closer—whatever Boston’s revolving door of managers and pitching coaches asked him to do. Around New England, the sight of his knuckler was like death and taxes.
Yes, there were times when his knuckleball fluttered too high in the strike zone and got crushed. Not to mention countless passed balls.
But there were highlights too.
A 16-8 campaign in 1995 that earned him third place in AL Cy Young balloting. Two wins against the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS. Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, when he famously went 3.1 innings in relief in order to save the other pitchers for the next day. His first All-Star bid in 2009, at age 42.
Then there’s the qualitative stuff. He apologized to Red Sox fans after allowing Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run in Game 7 of the '03 ALCS. He was well known as one of Major League Baseball’s most charitable players, winning the Roberto Clemente Award in 2010.
Wakefield finished his Red Sox career first in games started and innings pitched. First in class, too.
3. Jason Varitek
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‘Tek was a captain (one of only three in Red Sox history), a consummate teammate and the glue that held Boston’s pitching staff together in the shadow of its more-ballyhooed offense.
He played in more postseason games (63) than any other Red Sox player. He caught more games (1,488) than any other Boston catcher. He made three All-Star teams and won a Gold Glove in 2005.
In an eight-year span, Varitek was behind the dish for an MLB-record four Red Sox no-hitters: Hideo Nomo (2001), Derek Lowe (2002), Clay Buchholz (2007) and Jon Lester (2008).
While his offense tailed off toward the end of his career, Varitek could swing the bat. Three times he topped 20 home runs in a season, and he went deep 11 times in the postseason.
If ever there was a captain that Red Sox players could get behind, it was Varitek. It was his argument with Alex Rodriguez that led to Boston’s bench-clearing brawl with the Yankees in July 2004 that turned the Sox’s season around.
Team leaders like that don’t come around every day. And who knows? Maybe Varitek will resume a similar post down the road—as Red Sox manager (one can always hope).
2. Dustin Pedroia
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It all starts with his appearance. Dustin Pedroia is pint-sized and balding. He looks more like your college buddy than a major league star.
Folks in Boston like players they can relate to—and in the Muddy Chicken, they have a muse. But to call him a scrapper would be doing Pedroia an injustice and ignoring his on-field production.
He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2007 and the MVP the season after that. Before reaching the big leagues, he was an All-American shortstop at Arizona State.
It’s not just the production that makes Pedroia unique. He is a lovable S.O.B.
The guy won’t shut up. Whether it’s his manager, teammates, fans or opposing players, they’re sure to be on the receiving end of Pedroia’s loving trash talk (even Derek Jeter is a fan).
And it comes from a genuine place. Even after capturing a World Series ring and other assorted hardware, Pedroia still possesses a Little Leaguer’s love for the game. He lives with his family across the street from Fenway Park and paces by his window until the park opens.
If only the rest of us were as excited to start work every day.
1. David Ortiz
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Some might call me a hypocrite for putting Big Papi No. 1 on this list, considering my June 22 column imploring the Red Sox not to extend him long-term.
But that doesn’t make him any less lovable, nor his Red Sox career any less remarkable.
It all started with a low-risk, $1.25 million contract before the 2003 season. Ortiz rewarded the Sox’s faith in him with a breakthrough .288/31/101 campaign—after which he really started etching his place in Red Sox lore.
There were his two walk-off hits in 24 hours to win Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS. His string of late-inning heroics continued the next two seasons, giving birth to his unofficial title as the “greatest clutch hitter in the history of the Boston Red Sox.”
In nine-plus seasons with Boston, Ortiz has 340 home runs. Everything about him is big: his hits, his laugh, his Shrek-like smile.
There have been some low points, like his heart scare in 2006 or the injuries that plagued him from 2008 to 2010 and sent his numbers plummeting. Not to mention the news in 2009 that Ortiz had tested positive for PEDs during 2003.
But all that pales in comparison to the sheer joy that Ortiz has given fans who have watched him for the past 10 years. Even saying “David Ortiz” or “Big Papi” is hard to do without a smile creeping across my face.
If that’s not the hallmark of a beloved player, I don’t know what is.