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Most valuable half-pint

With a big chip on his shoulder, and a bigger bat, Dustin Pedroia has made an all-star career out of proving naysayers wrong

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / September 28, 2008
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WOODLAND, Calif. - The boy was barely out of diapers when he discovered a tiny wooden bat and started swinging at everything that moved: tennis balls, ping-pong balls, balls of tinfoil.

Then came a baby goose.

By the time Debbie Pedroia rushed to the scene, it was too late. The family's new pet had bobbed its fuzzy head into her 18-month-old son's strike zone, and baby Dustin had swung the little bat as if his life depended on it.

Goodbye, goose. Hello, half-pint avenger.

For most of the years since that fateful encounter, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia has kept swinging as if he were the prey, his baseball life a daily challenge to the legions of doubters who believed he never would be tall enough, strong enough, or swift enough to compete against the world's elite players in the sport of his dreams.

Pedroia's own father was among those who sold him short, never fathoming he would be capable of this: Less than a year after winning a World Series ring and American League Rookie of the Year honors, the kid long shunned by baseball's intelligentsia heads to Fenway Park today for the final two games of the regular season with an outside chance to become the first second baseman in major league history to win a batting championship, a Gold Glove for defensive excellence, and the league's Most Valuable Player award, all in one magnificent all-star season.

No matter how he is measured - the Sox generously list him as 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds - Pedroia is the national pastime's epitome of pluck, a trash-talking scrapper who outplayed expectations at every level, from T-ball to the bigs, grinding his way to stardom.

"He has surprised everybody along the way, except his mother and himself," said Rob Rinaldi, who coached Pedroia at Woodland High School and watched him go undrafted after his senior year in 2001 as major league teams selected 1,485 other players.

Big league scouts suspected Pedroia's small body - he was barely 5-foot-6 and 140 pounds - would not stand up to the rigors of professional baseball. And, truth be told, Rinaldi and Pedroia's father, Guy, harbored similar reservations. (Guy Pedroia is 5-foot-9, Debbie a 5-footer.)

"I have to admit, I was so negative about it," Guy said of Dustin's baseball prospects. "I said, 'Deb, look at me and you. He's got to have size.' "

When colleges began recruiting Pedroia, Guy and Rinaldi urged Debbie to downsize her dreams for Dustin, but she erupted.

"I don't want to hear another word from any of you," Rinaldi recalled her snapping. "You just wait. He's going to prove all of you wrong if somebody just gives him a chance."

The chance came when Arizona State University - the alma mater of Barry Bonds and Reggie Jackson - granted Pedroia a baseball scholarship. Yet the coach, Pat Murphy, wondered the first time he met his new shortstop whether there had been a terrible mistake.

"He walked into my office in a cutoff white T-shirt, his skin was as white as the T-shirt, and he had the body of a sixth-grader," Murphy recalled.

In a vintage Pedroia moment, the teenager flexed his biceps and said, "Hey, coach, how do you like these guns?"

Talking the talk
Murphy should have seen it coming. His recruiter, Jay Sferra, had relayed a scouting report on Pedroia: "He's a mouthy, cocky kid who's only about 5-foot-6, but he can really play."

Anyone who has met Pedroia knows his mouth is as big as his ambition, his confidence, well . . .

"There is no way he lacks any confidence," said Andre Ethier, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers who played with Pedroia at Arizona State and remains a close friend.

"He really believes he's Babe Ruth," Sferra said.

Yet even Pedroia's parents were stunned during their son's first team meeting with Murphy. As the coach reminded the players that no individual was more important than the team, Pedroia interrupted.

"I got to be honest, coach," he said. "You're going to win a lot more games with me than without me."

Cocksure, yes. Accurate, too.

"Whatever people say about him, that he's loud or arrogant, he's genuine," Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He shows up in the morning ready to do everything in his power to beat the other team. As a teammate, you can't help but respect that, and as a manager, you can't help but appreciate that."

Debbie Pedroia primed her son for the odyssey by convincing him that his future would be limited only by his dreams.

"She never accepted the size part," Guy said.

Debbie is a former college tennis player from an athletic family - her brother, Phil Snow, is the linebackers coach for the Detroit Lions. She quickly forgave Dustin's fatal attack on the goose and began coaching him in T-ball in laughably ruthless fashion, running up the score against weaker, 5-year-old opponents.

"I was embarrassed," Guy said. "I said, 'Deb, you've got to settle down.' "

Guy himself was no pushover, though. A former softball player for a national travel team, he spent countless hours coaching Dustin and his older brother, Brett, in their backyard in Woodland, a farming and factory town in the crop-rich Sacramento Valley. Dustin hounded his father to pitch batting practice, and Guy agreed - on one condition.

"If he was going to swing the bat 200 times, he was going to take 200 ground balls," Guy said. "I knew at his size that he wasn't going anyplace if he wasn't as good defensively as he was offensively."

Guy also sent his sons to hitting clinics with Rich Chiles, a former major league outfielder. When Dustin was 7, Chiles cranked up his pitching machine to 50 miles per hour, unleashing the equivalent of a major league fastball to the children. Chiles recalled that Dustin was the only child his age who dared to face the machine.

"He even let the ball hit him," Chiles said. "Right then, I knew there was no fear in him."

At 12, Dustin led his Little League team to within one victory of reaching the World Series. At 13, when his brother was a catcher for nearby Shasta College, Dustin filled in for absent players during fall league games, still showing no fear.

"He would play shortstop and bat leadoff and get hits and drive in runs," Brett said at one of the family's three tire stores, where Dustin's 25-year-old parrot is caged amid a display of his baseball memorabilia. "Do you know how many times I heard, 'Man, this kid is way better than you'?"

Dustin capitalized on his mother's spirit and father's work ethic. A truck driver's son, Guy was 14 when he began working in a Woodland tire shop for $1.25 an hour. Twelve years later, he and Debbie agreed to buy the shop on a 20-year payment plan. With Guy working double shifts and Debbie helping, they retired the debt in five years and began expanding the business, all the while pushing their children to approach life with similar passion.

A competitive family
To this day, Guy's ring tone is the "Rocky" theme song.

"Everybody in my family, especially my mom, is real competitive," Pedroia said. "My dad is more laid back, but they both gave me the fight in me that I can overcome anything."

As a child, Dustin believed he could beat his tough-talking grandfather, Bo Pedroia, at cribbage. Long before Dustin trash-talked his way into a running cribbage duel with Francona, he was wisecracking with Grandpa Bo. Or skirmishing with Brett under their basketball hoop. Or picking apart opponents at ping-pong.

Pedroia's ping-pong victims include Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn, whom Pedroia baited into a match last year at the Athletes' Performance Institute in Arizona. Never mind that Quinn, a rugged 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, towered over him.

"You want a piece of me, meat?" Pedroia said.

Ethier, who witnessed the scene, said, "Dustin was talking smack to him the whole time, talking about how he would sack Brady and put him on his back. Dustin absolutely destroyed him, and Brady couldn't stand losing to someone who is 5-foot-something. It was pretty incredible."

In fact, little has gone wrong for Pedroia in athletic competition, other than badly breaking his ankle at 14 when he was hit by Lance Briggs, now a Chicago Bears linebacker, while quarterbacking Woodland High's freshman football team. Two surgeries later, he decided to focus full time on baseball.

From Woodland, where he hit .445 his senior year as the league's most valuable player, Pedroia advanced to Arizona State, where he emerged as one of the greatest stars in school history.

All three seasons before he turned pro, Pedroia was the team's most valuable player, batting .384 overall while never missing a start in 185 games. He also gave back the final two years of his scholarship so Murphy could use the money to recruit better pitchers.

"Dustin always had a chip on his shoulder, like a fighter going into the ring who is trying to prove he belongs," Murphy said. "He was special from day one. I wish every coach had a chance to coach a Pedroia."

By all accounts, Pedroia has doubted himself only once in baseball, during his first weeks in Arizona. Homesick and uncomfortable, he struggled badly.

"I can't field a ground ball," Debbie recalled him saying by phone. "I'm nervous."

She counseled him against giving in, and the crisis passed.

"He has been proving himself every day of his life," Debbie said. "That's what makes him who he is."

For all his success in college, though - Pedroia was a finalist in 2004 for the Golden Spikes Award given to the best amateur player in the country - he came up short again that year when he reentered the major league draft. Several teams indicated they would select him in the first round, but none did.

Indeed, seven other shortstops were selected before the Sox drafted Pedroia in the second round, 65th overall. Those seven commanded average signing bonuses of nearly $1.8 million, while Pedroia settled for $575,000. Only four of the seven have reached the majors and only one - Arizona's Stephen Drew - has remotely approached Pedroia's success. And only Pedroia has inspired comparisons to Pete Rose, baseball's all-time hit leader, otherwise known as "Charlie Hustle."

"There are a lot of similarities in the way they both respect the game," said Francona, who played with Rose for the Expos in 1984 and was managed by Rose with the Reds in 1987. "That's a huge compliment to both of them."

Among league leaders
Francona indicated Pedroia's teammates value both his leadership on the field and comic relief in the clubhouse. In one of the finest seasons by a Sox second baseman in team history, he enters today batting .325, second only to Minnesota's Joe Mauer (.330) in the American League. Pedroia leads the league in runs (118), hits (211) and doubles (54), giving him a chance to become the first American Leaguer to lead all three categories since Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. in 1983. He also ranks among the leaders in many other offensive categories, as well as nearly every fielding standard for second basemen.

While appearing in 156 games - the most among Sox players this year - Pedroia has broken franchise records for second basemen in runs, hits, doubles, extra-base hits, and total bases in a season. And he has been caught stealing only once in 21 tries, the best success rate for a Sox player since 1920.

Pedroia can trace the birth of his big league success to May 3, 2007. Mired in a monthlong slump that prompted Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy and fans to express doubts about his readiness, Pedroia had lost some sleep but not his confidence. He was batting .172 that morning when he text-messaged Murphy.

The message read: "I'm ready to put Red Sox Nation on my back."

That night, Pedroia drove in a run with a bases-loaded walk and singled as the Sox beat the Seattle Mariners, 8-7. He has since hit .330, twice helped the Sox reach the playoffs, and has established himself as one of the game's most exciting players. But he has yet to escape the stress of proving himself, according to his father, who cited his son's receding hairline as a barometer of the anxiety that drive him.

"Once the season starts, he says, 'Dad, I wash my hair, and it falls out,' " Guy said. "But then it grows back in the off-season."

Pedroia is still driven by the echoing voices of his doubters.

"I want to do this every year," he said of his remarkable production. "I don't think this is career year for me by any means. I'm going to continue to get better, wherever that leads."

It already has led to fame in Woodland, where Pedroia is known as "The Legend" at the Strawberry Patch farmstand on one edge of the city and celebrated with a wall display at the Pizza Guys restaurant across town. Little Leaguers imitate his mighty swing, old-timers boast of watching him develop, and teachers cite him as a role model.

"Dustin is our local hero," Mayor Skip Davies said. "He has overcome a lot of things despite his size. We're so proud of him in our little town."

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