On the flash fry of Kevin Youkilis, a career in fast-forward.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are.
It’s 2004. A young and ungodly creature is standing in the shadows of The Show, on the AAA fringes of MLB. He’s 6’1” and 220 lbs., a caricature of human life, all upper body and puffed out like a pompous bird. He’s built like a brick shithouse on stilts, with a stance that is categorically incorrect: feet too close together, arms too far apart. His ass is out over the batter’s box and his bat is pointed back towards the pitcher, hands halfway up the barrel. His swing is even more absurd, like it should take years to happen, yet it flies off in a flash like a hammer locked, cocked and fired through the quiet streets of a small Midwestern town. Despite his youth, his patience at the plate is already well known; he unloads only to inside-out a ball for a double down the left field line. Otherwise, he walks, he stalks down to first base where he waits with all the patience required of his massive hulking form. He’s a baseball anomaly, a freak not designed to play the game, with legs like Randy Johnson and a body like Refrigerator Perry. He is exemplary by no means, but plays baseball like a well-oiled machine.
Flash forward: it’s 2012. He’s huffing and puffing his way toward third. He has hit a triple, the last he will ever hit in the only uniform he has ever known. Over the last eight seasons he has seen much success: a .287/.388/.487 slash line, 133 home runs, 566 RBIs, 494 walks, three all-star selections, a gold glove and two World Series rings. But he has also seen time and age take their toll, his awkward, worn-down form decay from years of heavy-duty heart and hustle. He’s seen his last pitch as a sock. He leaves the field to 38,000 standing in unison and singing an indescribable song:
Under any other management, Kevin Youkilis with his stance never corrected might have been overlooked as a major league–ready all-star. But under the ever-watchful eye of Theo Epstein, a Bill James disciple and Billy Beane enthusiast, Youkilis was a lock. A high-OBP kinda guy who plays with a constant chip on his shoulder, whether it should be there or not. In his prime (2007-2010) he hit .303/.401/.538 and averaged 5.5 wins above replacement a season. He played hard. He offered no apologies and made no excuses. He argued every third strike he ever had. He was Euclis, the Greek God of Walks, and he was a Sabermetricist’s wet dream.
Which is why his sudden fall from grace was shocking. OBP guys, guys with a high baseball IQ who can get on base without unmooring the bat, tend to have long, useful careers. But something about his stance, his build or his hard-fought attitude towards his surroundings got the better of him and Youkilis began to decline. In 2010 he managed only 102 games and last year added only 18 more but was never quite the same hitter coming back from injury. This year the floundering and injuries continued and baseball being the game that it is, a game of timing and circumstance, gave one of its Gods its most untimely-yet-dignified demise: the Old Yeller Special.
Having to take a player like Youk out back is not an easy thing for a fan base to do, but it is understood; that which we are, we are. When Youkilis stopped hitting, when he stopped playing, all the grit and good memories in the world couldn’t save him. As much as it pained the nation to see him go, we knew it was for the best; we knew it was better to see him walk away than continue to earn our ire and rot on the bench.
So goodbye, Kevin Youkilis; it’s better to see you shot in Chicago than bruised and beaten in Boston.