TAMPA — Kevin Youkilis walked out of the bathroom on Wednesday freshly shaved. He appeared in good shape, but looked different in pinstripes, for sure.
He is a Yankee, he said, because of the “few teams” who courted him this offseason, he felt “the Yankees had the best chance of winning the World Series.” Since his camp-opening remarks about being a “Red Sock forever,” Youkilis has become more Yankee-like.
He was a bit combative during our discussion, unwilling to discuss comments made last April by then-Sox manager Bobby Valentine, in which he said Youkilis wasn’t “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason.” The comments strained the relationship between player and manager for the rest of the season.
“I’m not going to talk about Bobby,” Youkilis said. “I’ve moved on, he’s moved on. I’m a New York Yankee in 2013 and that’s what I’m focusing on. I don’t think it does any good to rehash stuff like that. You have your opinion. You’re pretty adamant about what you thought, so go with it.”
Sure sounded like Youkilis hadn’t moved on, but he wasn’t about to engage in any more talk about Valentine.
Youkilis did say the Red Sox made one call in the offseason to gauge interest with his agent Joe Bick, but “that was the only call they made.”
Would he have come back if the Sox wanted him?
“I was a free agent, so I was just going to go through my options,” Youkilis said.
Youkilis said the White Sox, to whom he was traded last June, made him an offer, as did the Indians. He said reuniting with Terry Francona and Brad Mills in Cleveland was tempting. Youkilis said other teams had discussions with him, but he thought the Yankees’ one-year, $12 million deal was the best situation to perhaps reignite his career.
Youkilis had been banged up a lot, and it seemed as if his body was breaking down.
“My health was actually all right,” he said. “Nothing was wrong with me. I had an extended rehab. They took it slow with me and made sure I was 100 percent.”
He went to the White Sox and had a killer first week. He played well at times after that, but it was not the Youk Red Sox fans had grown to love. It was a different version. A version that made one think his best days were behind him, and that the Red Sox made the right choice to opt for Will Middlebrooks as their third baseman of the future.
Red Sox brass decided that having Valentine play Adrian Gonzalez in right field and Youkilis at first, and having to platoon players, wasn’t going to work over time. So, they traded Youkilis to Chicago for Zach Stewart and Brent Lillibridge, neither of whom is still with the Red Sox.
What happened to Youkilis?
“Mixture of things,” he said. “I battled myself with my stance and my hands and all sorts of different things. I battled myself. Mentally, I had a down year, which can lead sometimes to some things on the field. When you battle yourself on the field, that’s not good. I was trying to make things different to hit .300 out of .230, and you can’t do it. You have to keep it simple.
“I had my best week when I was traded. I have a little watch [for making the playoffs] back at my house from the Chicago experience, which I really enjoyed. But during that time, my wife was pregnant and she was there for a few weeks in Chicago, but then she had to go back to California and we were away from each other for two months. Our child was born.
“That was mentally tough on me. It was tough being away from my family and not being there for my wife, but I was also fighting myself in baseball. A lot of those things added up. There’s no excuses other than not performing and doing your job.”
Now Youkilis feels he has a fresh start. He dresses near another newcomer, Travis Hafner, in the Yankees’ clubhouse.
He has more new faces, and a new manager, Joe Girardi. He’s got the third base job because Alex Rodriguez may miss the season because of more hip surgery. So, this is his chance to be Youk again — the on-base percentage machine he was in Boston.
“It’s not a matter of proving anything to anyone but myself,” Youkilis said. “Helping my team win and winning games. Playing the game hard. As long as I can help this team win in some way every game, I feel I’m doing my job.”
Deep down, Youkilis probably thought he’d always be a Red Sox.
“It’s one of those things where you never know what the future holds,” he said. “I was there long enough to see a lot of guys come and go — Nomar [Garciaparra] and Pedro [Martinez] — all the greats who were there. Things happen and it’s part of the game.”
Youkilis kept up with what the Red Sox did in the offseason.
“Oh, yeah. I see guys they picked up,” he said. “They have a bunch of guys I’ve played against and know. It’s a different team. Good coaching staff. I love Brian Butterfield. I love that Arnie Beyeler got the first base job. I’m not rooting for them during the 19 games they play against us.”
Red Sox management thought team chemistry was poor. So, they changed it.
“Guys got along, but I think it was a different atmosphere,” Youkilis said. “Different things were happening with different managers, coaches, and players. The whole thing was different. [Francona] wasn’t there. Players have to play, though, no matter what the situation was.”
After the September 2011 collapse, why did the poor play continue in 2012?
“We just didn’t play good baseball,” Youkilis said. “You can look at a million different reasons why. You can look at this variable or that variable, but we as players didn’t perform. And that’s the bottom line.”
And now, Youkilis is the third baseman of the New York Yankees.
“I grew up at third base, but I played more first base than third base,” he said. “Third is a tough position; first base is easier. Third is one of the toughest positions in the infield. I’ve been working hard on trying to improve my weaknesses, trying to improve every day.”
Youkilis will always love the time he spent in Boston, but “I think we have a great team over here. It’s going to be fun.”