Burning desire

Youkilis’s fiery displays are embraced by some, loathed by others, but he won’t change approach

By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Correspondent / October 7, 2009

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The Everyman is not for everyone. Kevin Youkilis has tried to make peace with that. He wants to be liked, to be admired - who doesn’t? - but it cannot be at any price. There is scant room for compromise when you are the most intricate cog in the Red Sox wheel, a multi-positional player who provides the manager with the precious gift of flexibility, a middle-of-the-lineup power hitter who never, ever, gives away an at-bat, an on-base savant whose patience at the plate earned him cult status in a New York Times best seller, a Gold Glove first baseman who just might win one at third, too, if he ever logs enough games there.

The Red Sox will open the Division Series tomorrow night against the Anaheim Angels thanks, in large part, to the contributions of their Everyman, who plugged holes, filled gaps, and provided contingencies in a year in which Boston’s position players were uncharacteristically thin. Youkilis has sacrificed average for power, Gold Gloves for versatility, and still the numbers sparkle. In 136 games this season, he posted an on-base percentage of .413, an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages) of .961 and a batting average of .305. Even though he missed 26 games, he hit 27 homers, had 94 RBIs, scored 99 runs, and walked 77 times.

“Statistically, if you consider 2008 and 2009, you could make the case there has been no better player in the league [in that time],’’ said Red Sox executive vice president Theo Epstein.

Some players have a natural swing, the chiseled body. The uniform drapes over their athletic frames as if they were sculpted by Michelangelo. Youkilis is not one of these players. He is all sweat and toil, with his unorthodox stance and his deceiving frame and his glistening bald pate and that curious swath of hair on his chin. He does not look like an MVP candidate; more a refrigerator repairman, a butcher, the man selling hammers behind the counter at the True Value hardware store.

A regular guy.

Only this “regular guy’’ systematically transformed himself into one of the most feared hitters in baseball.

“If there are guys on first and second with two outs of a one-run game and you asked a pitcher, ‘Who do you want to face?’ I guarantee there isn’t a single one who will answer Kevin Youkilis,’’ said teammate Mike Lowell.

So why, then, is this Everyman not unequivocally embraced and revered by his teammates? Why, when a reporter approaches another key Red Sox player to speak about Youkilis does he respond, “I’d rather refrain’’?

It should be Youk’s team, his clubhouse, and it might be some day, but some of his peers believe Youkilis still has some growing to do. They’d like to see him filter some of his strongly held opinions. They’d like him to respect the veteran protocol that has long been a part of baseball’s fabric. And they want him to control his temper.

Like so many of us, Youkilis’s greatest strength - his searing intensity - has also proved, at times, to be his greatest weakness. He attacks every plate appearance as though there are two outs in Game 7 of the World Series. The result is often a critical hit, but when it goes the other way, the failure triggers a spasm of frustration. The outbursts are over quickly, but they grate on opponents - and, as it turns out, some of his teammates.

“At one point some of the veterans came up to me and said, ‘Can you talk to this guy?’ ’’ manager Terry Francona said. “What I tried to tell them was Youk just needs to get it out of his system. Watch him sometime. Thirty seconds after his outburst, he’s screaming for his teammates.

“Look, he hit me with a helmet once. I don’t want to get hit with a helmet. But I think sometimes Youk is misrepresented. He’s not worried about his own stats. He wants the team to win so badly.’’

Dustin Pedroia bristles at the notion that Youkilis should alter his style.

“He plays hard, puts the team in front of himself. I don’t know what else people want,’’ Pedroia said.

The negative perceptions concerned Youkilis enough to seek the counsel of veteran Sean Casey. Casey confided he, too, had issues controlling his emotions earlier in his career. He advised Youkilis to retreat to the tunnel, away from cameras and fans and players before he assaulted the trash can.

“It’s a fine line,’’ Youkilis said. “I know some people think ‘How come he thinks he can get a hit every time? How can he think he’s that good?’ That’s not it. I know the percentages.

“But every at-bat matters to me. And when it doesn’t work out, I need to release some of that negative energy.

“I’ve tried the other way. For a while, when I made an out I just went and sat down. It doesn’t work for me. I’ve gotten better [at controlling myself], but what can I do? I can’t change who I am.’’

Doubters along the way
In December 2002, shortly after Epstein was named general manager, he was piecing together a minor deal involving a lefthanded reliever when he asked his scouts to compile a list of fringe players who could be packaged as “fake prospects’’ - players with impressive numbers whom the organization didn’t truly value.

“When they gave me their names,’’ Epstein recalled, “Youk was at the top of the list.’’

It was an old, familiar refrain. Despite excellent production at each level, Youkilis was overlooked and undervalued. He batted .317 with a .512 on base percentage in Lowell in 2001 and led the New York-Penn League with 70 walks and 52 runs in 59 games, and still the Sox scouts did not project him as a major league talent.

Part of it was his pudgy frame, something in recent years Youkilis has taken great pains to remedy. In his early years, his hands were so far up the bat it was, in the words of one scout, “preposterous.’’ He didn’t run particularly well, and his range at third was deemed average.

When the Red Sox first called him up, they did so with trepidation. They anticipated he would hit and draw walks, but expected it would take half a year, as it usually did with young players, to adjust to the majors.

“He didn’t look great in the uniform and we were concerned if he had a bad first half, the coaching staff, the manager and the fan base might not afford him the time to develop,’’ Epstein acknowledged. “But his transition was so seamless we never had to worry.’’

Youkilis dragged his doubters to the majors with him, treasuring every trip to the plate as another opportunity to prove them wrong. Some of his teammates were appalled at his actions. Why was he hot-headed, so angry?

“In 2006, I couldn’t understand why he could be 2 for 2, then line out and the world was going to end,’’ Lowell said. “He’s matured since then.’’

Last June against Tampa Bay, Youkilis was blowing off steam after a futile at-bat when Manny Ramírez made it clear he objected to Youk’s tirade. Angry words were exchanged in the dugout and Ramírez had to be restrained from going after his teammate. The incident was caught on tape, thrusting the subject of Youk’s demeanor into the public forum.

“It was over pretty quickly,’’ Youkilis said. “It’s a long season. We’re together every day. Things get said.’’

The incident left Sox players with varying views. David Ortiz had long ago accepted Youkilis’s intense personality as a sign of a player who cared deeply about the game. “But sometimes you have to stop and think about how things look,’’ Ortiz cautioned. “I’m not saying what he did with Manny was right or wrong. But you’ve got to remember you’re in the dugout talking with a guy who has been in the league 16, 17 years.’’

Although both players privately expressed regret over the incident, neither apologized to the other, even after Ramírez declared, “Everything’s cool.’’

“It wasn’t cool when I got hit in the chin,’’ Youkilis said. “He said some stuff. I said some stuff. What I should have said was I couldn’t play in the outfield for him the next time he came up with a sore hamstring.

“Manny can’t understand where I’m coming from. He wasn’t an eighth-round pick. He didn’t have everyone doubting him. Manny works hard. Real, real hard. But it also comes very naturally to Manny. Nothing came naturally to me.

“We have two different approaches to the game. Winning and losing isn’t life and death to Manny.’’

But it is to Youk.

Intense youngster
When Kevin Youkilis was 4 years old, one of the neighborhood parents invited him to play on a 5- and 6- year-old T-ball team. It wasn’t because Youk was a baseball prodigy; “They just needed bodies,’’ his father, Mike Youkilis explained.

While most of the kids were kicking around dirt, Youkilis was keeping score, even though he was instructed not to. He could hit, he could throw, and he could talk.

When Youkilis was 11, he was on the mound and didn’t like the way the umpire was squeezing the strike zone, so he informed the ump his calls were bad. The umpire warned the young boy to be silent; when Youk couldn’t, he was tossed from the game. Moments later, his manager was, too.

“That was me,’’ his father said. “Kevin was right. The guy was calling a lousy game.’’

By the time he was a high school senior, Youkilis was a lightly recruited player with excellent numbers who played third, short, first, and the outfield.

First-year University of Cincinnati coach Brian Cleary had inherited a team that had gone 5-34 the season before. He studied Youkilis in the batting cage and tried to look beyond the doughy physique and the horrendous stance. The kid had decent bat speed and uncommon focus.

“So we took him,’’ Cleary said. “Honestly? If we had more talent to choose from, we probably wouldn’t have. At that point we just needed bodies.’’

The coach and the player clashed in Youkilis’s freshman year. Cleary wanted Youkilis to make some adjustments; the kid stubbornly resisted. His intensity intimidated his teammates, and his critique of the umpires rankled his coaches.

“I’m telling him, ‘Youk, the umpire didn’t miss three calls on you, OK? Just move on,’ ’’ said Cleary. “But you know what? By his senior year, if he said the ump missed it, I believed him. He had the best eye I’ve ever seen.’’

Youkilis played every inning of every game. He played first and third, and when the team’s shortstop got injured, slid over and filled in for him.

By the time he graduated, he had set school records for career home runs, walks, and slugging percentage. The Cincinnati Reds, the team he dreamed of playing for, scouted dozens of his college games. As the draft approached, the Reds called Cleary.

“You got any prospects?’’ the scout inquired.

“Are you kidding?’’ Cleary answered. “What about Youk?’’

“Anyone else?’’ the scout asked.

The Red Sox selected him in the eighth round and offered him a $12,000 signing bonus. Youk’s agent angled for $20,000, but the Sox wouldn’t budge. The kid signed anyhow.

“Kevin would have played for a six-pack of beer,’’ his father said.

‘He’s a great teammate’
His path to the big leagues was delayed while the Sox waited for Bill Mueller’s deal to expire and third base to open up. When Mike Lowell came to Boston, Youkilis switched to first base. In 2007, he handled 1,080 chances flawlessly, becoming the first American League first baseman in history to compile a 1.000 fielding percentage.

He felt he had earned the respect of his teammates, and was initially wounded when he discovered some of them were irritated by his competitive nature.

“Some guys disapprove,’’ Youkilis said. “I don’t know if it’s 50-50 or 70-30. They don’t understand how I work. I respect them for how they go about things. I hope they respect me. You can’t please everybody.’’

Nor, Sean Casey advised him, should he try. Casey told Youkilis that in 1999, he was hitting .380 with the Reds and was hell bent on maintaining his rhythm.

“I felt like I should rake the ball every time I was up,’’ Casey said. “When I didn’t, I got upset.

“One day a couple of guys came up to me and said, ‘You need to tone it down. Players are hitting .240 and you are hitting .380 and throwing your helmet when you don’t get a hit.’

“I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to do. The next day, [shortstop] Barry Larkin came up to me and said, ‘Don’t listen to those guys. Show your passion. Over time, you will learn how to harness it.’

“I told Youk the same thing. Be yourself. He’s a great teammate - one of the best I’ve had.’’

The Everyman is 30 years old, and he is still evolving. He is devising new methods to contain his intensity.

He has reconfigured his body through an offseason training program in Arizona. He has taught himself to swing away.

“Two years ago, if the count was 3-1 he was looking for a walk,’’ said Pedroia. “Now he’s looking to drive the ball.’’

Francona has grown to love his all-purpose clean-up hitter, even as he constantly reminds Youkilis that he doesn’t know everything.

“Without him,’’ Francona said, “our ball club really gets stuck in the mud.’’

Some day, the Everyman might enjoy universal appeal. Some day, Kevin Youkilis’s uncommon intensity will be a footnote to an exceptional career, a self made All-Star who runs out ground balls, hits for power, gets on base, cheers for his teammates, and sets out to win every game, even though the numbers say it’s impossible.

“You can’t get no better than Youk,’’ said Ortiz. “If you don’t want to play with a guy like that, then there’s something wrong with you.’’

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