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Third baseman Youkilis reaching for a spot on Sox

Youkilis reaching for spot on Sox

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Out on the open seas, the Alex Trebek of the SS Red Sox floated a "Jeopardy!" question no one could answer quicker than Kevin Youkilis.

Boston's third baseman of the future and his fellow contestants on the team's annual winter cruise were challenged to identify the home park of one of three Sox minor league affiliates whose first letter was closest to the beginning of the alphabet. Youkilis, who is known in every corner of the baseball world as "The Greek God of Walks" -- thanks to the book "Moneyball" -- had played in all three venues, from Single A Lowell's LeLacheur Park to Triple A Pawtucket's McCoy Stadium. So he nailed the question.

The answer, of course, was Double A Portland's Hadlock Field.

As if a special game show moment were not enough, Youkilis landed a bonus on the cruise. He got the girl. Or, more accurately, a girlfriend, who since has left her job working with children on the ship and has found herself in Fort Myers near Youkilis.

Now, he dearly would like the answer to one greater question: When will he play in Fenway Park?

"I'm ready to come to Fenway and I'd love to come up," Youkilis said yesterday after doing what he does best, reaching base in three of his four plate appearances in a 9-4 exhibition victory over the Twins. "It's only about a 40-minute drive from Pawtucket. Hopefully, I'll get there as soon as possible."

Easier said than achieved, since Youkilis finds himself on a depth chart that starts with Bill Mueller, the reigning American League batting champion. But if he takes longer than anticipated to make it to the bigs, it won't be for lack of recognition. Truth be told, Youkilis ranks among the most renowned minor leaguers of his time, both because of his accomplishments on the field and the highly publicized account in "Moneyball" of Oakland general manager Billy Beane's unrequited lust to pry him from the Sox.

With a .451 on-base percentage over his first three pro seasons, Youkilis epitomizes Beane's approach to the game, which just happens to be shared by Sox general manager Theo Epstein. Youkilis made headlines last year when he reached base safely in 71 straight games for Portland and Pawtucket, the longest streak in baseball since Kevin Millar's 71-game run over parts of three minor league seasons with the Marlins from 1997-99.

"That `Moneyball' book has turned out to be big," said Youkilis, who turns 25 next Monday. "Everyone talks about it. I don't know how many people have read it, but it seems like a lot more people know me and recognize me." During the American League playoffs last year, he figured his anonymity was intact when he and former Sox farmhand Mike Gambino strolled with the masses toward Fenway Park for a game against the A's.

"Then some scalper out of the blue says, `Hey, Kevin, how you doin'?' It was like he knew me," Youkilis recalled. "We were laughing. I mean, how did this guy know me?"

Curt Schilling also knew him. The newest Sox superstar wasted little time after arriving in camp before he started razzing the kid who draws walks at a faster pace than nearly any player but the current undisputed on-base king, Barry Bonds.

"Schilling was giving me crap about it," Youkilis said. "He was like, `Oh, there's the Greek God of Walks.' "

Until he went 1 for 2 with a pair of walks yesterday, Youkilis had failed to reach base in seven at-bats this spring. He fared little better last spring, when the Sox sent him down after he went 1 for 12 with a walk. And while he has flourished at Single A and Double A, he has yet to prove himself at Triple A, where he ended last season hitting .165 with a .295 on-base percentage in 32 games. The Sox sent him from Pawtucket to play for the Navojoa in the Mexican winter league to test his ability to play through adversity, a prerequisite for success in Boston. He hated Mexican ball but, to his credit, persevered, batting .259 with a .413 on-base percentage.

"It was not the nicest of places," he said. "It was real bad. I didn't enjoy myself down there. But it was a good experience because you realize you want to play well enough that you put yourself in a position where you don't need to go to Mexico again."

Epstein has high hopes for Youkilis, who is projected to start the season at Triple A. The Sox have an option to retain Mueller through 2005.

"He's a real talented hitter with very advanced strike zone knowledge, and he has worked hard to improve his defense," Epstein said. "This will be a big year for him."

Beyond improving his defense (he committed 24 errors last year), Youkilis could benefit from adding some power to his stroke. He has homered 19 times in 1,097 at-bats since the Sox selected him in the eighth round of the 2001 draft out of the University of Cincinnati.

"I've seen progress with him," Sox hitting coach Ron Jackson said. "He's learning and getting stronger every day. Once he really learns how to drive the ball, it's going to help him."

Epstein expects Youkilis to meet the challenge.

"With his tremendous strike zone judgment, he's getting good pitches to hit," Epstein said. "He's a strong enough kid that eventually the power will come."

Youkilis is working as hard as anyone in camp and hoping he fulfills his expectations with the Sox, though he knows he often has been sought in trades.

"There's always a chance you get traded, but there's no better feeling for me than putting on a Red Sox uniform," he said. "Hopefully, I'll be able to step on the field at Fenway with that uniform and do a lot of great things."

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