Youkilis had old-school grit

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / June 15, 2008

CINCINNATI - The body was soft. Chubby. Truth be told, said Brian Cleary, who first met Kevin Youkilis at a University of Cincinnati baseball camp Cleary was running, there were those who came right out and said Youkilis was a little fat.

So, why did Cleary recruit Youkilis, who went to nearby Sycamore High, to play for the Bearcats?

Cleary was a pragmatist. He had gone 12-46 his first year as coach, which was an improvement over the five wins UC had won under his predecessor the year before.

"I knew he was better than what we had," Cleary said. "I'd love to say I saw something everybody else didn't, but I knew he was a big Cincinnati fan, his dad was a Cincinnati grad, and I knew this was a place he thought about going to school."

But over the next four years, Cleary also would learn this about the kid with the squared-off body and few of the tools that fill the stands with scouts:

"He had a sick determination that most guys don't have. He was told so many times, in so many places, that he wasn't good enough, he took it very personally.

"There were times we thought, 'We've got to calm him down.' He was very, very driven. Every at-bat was life and death, but that's why he is where he is. He wasn't athletic, a tools guy. He was a grinder, a gritty guy."

Yesterday, Cleary was in Great American Ball Park as a fan to watch Youkilis play for the first time as a major leaguer in his hometown. He wasn't alone. Youkilis said he had about 140 family members and friends occupying the party deck in center field.

Cleary is too honest to say he knew that this day would come. During an unremarkable freshman season, Cleary had told Youkilis that if he didn't make a few changes, he'd find somebody else who could play third base.

"I said some things his freshman year that make me cringe now, seeing where he is today," Cleary said. "He was a stubborn guy, but in a healthy way.

"By the end of his freshman year, I was thinking, 'Hey, we've got something here.' But I take no credit. He coaches himself. He knows his swing. Any time we said anything to him, he was already a step ahead. He made the adjustments he had to make. I just think he's a really smart guy who had a great feel for what he had to do.

"He was an incredibly easy guy to coach. He's the most self-motivated player I've ever coached."

By the time Youkilis finished four years at Cincinnati - he went undrafted after his junior year - he'd rewritten the UC record book. He was the Bearcats' all-time leader in home runs (53), walks (206), slugging percentage (.627), and on-base percentage (.499), and his .366 batting average was second-best all-time.

"He was the greediest hitter I've ever seen," Cleary said. "If he went 3 for 3, he was still dialed in on his last at-bat. If he made an out and went 3 for 4, it ruined his night."

This is what Cleary tells the kids who play for him now:

"Pay attention to your at-bats the way Youkilis does. You've got to be greedy like Youkilis. Greedy hitters are hitters."

It bothers Youkilis to this day that the hometown Reds showed little interest in him. The Reds knew who he was, Cleary said, but just weren't excited by what they saw. Not many teams were.

The Red Sox took him on the eighth round. The Athletics, whose GM, Billy Beane, would dub Youkilis the "Greek God of Walks" - an amusing tag to place on a man of Romanian descent - also had shown interest.

"Teams were afraid to pull the trigger," Cleary said. "The tools didn't project, and there were concerns about his body every step of the way.

"I can't tell you I thought he would be a big leaguer, but I knew he wouldn't just peter out after a year or two of pro ball."

Cleary follows the Sox, mostly on the Internet. The other day, Youkilis told him that he felt he'd grown into his body after he left college. Cleary is also aware of the recent dugout spat between Youkilis and Manny Ramírez, and how Youkilis has said that maybe he needs to find a greater emotional equilibrium.

"He's probably wanting to try to balance that," Cleary said, "but those emotions are one of the key traits to his success. He's never satisfied."

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