Intensity is Youkilis' trademark
Red Sox first baseman takes nothing for granted
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- One day, there was going to be a throw that hit the wrong part of his glove. Or a bad hop that slipped under him. Maybe there was going to be a slight mental lapse that would lead to that inevitable error.
That's usually how it happens over the endless course of a baseball season. Going the whole season without an error at your primary position?
It seems like almost a ridiculous notion, but the ultra-focused Kevin Youkilis somehow made it look easy in 2007, becoming the first qualifying American League first baseman in history to have an errorless season. National Leaguer Steve Garvey pulled off the remarkable feat for the Padres in 1984.
There were 1,080 chances for Youkilis to make an error over 135 games and 124 starts. It never happened for the man who is entering his third season as the Red Sox's starting first baseman.
"Pretty crazy," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. "We joke around with him. If he misses one in [drills], we say, 'That's the first ball you've missed in a year.' But it's incredible that he did that."
For Youkilis -- or Youuuuuuukkkkkkkkk as Red Sox fans call him -- the only hard part about the streak was hearing about it all the time. This is the same guy who cringes when someone brings up a hitting streak to him.
"It was brought to my attention a lot by the media," Youkilis said. "They always throw it in your face, and if you're superstitious, that's the worst thing ever."
But not even that could get to him. There was simply no jinxing him, at least until Game 4 of the American League Championship Series when he had a borderline error on a tough-to-handle pickoff throw by Jon Lester. Fortunately for Youkilis and the Red Sox, that play had no bearing on the outcome of the game.
After starring with his bat in October -- Youkilis was no small reason why the Red Sox went on to win the World Series -- he got a phone call to remember in November. Youkilis was informed that his errorless regular season had won him a Gold Glove. For an award that is so often based on reputation, it was a big caveat for Youkilis in just his second season as a starting player.
"It was a great feeling," Youkilis said. "To all the managers and coaches out there who voted for me, I was just so excited and I wanted to say thank you to all of them. They definitely kept their eyes open. Sometimes, you never know, they could just write down a guy to write down a guy. I was real excited but then I said, 'Did Coco [Crisp] get it?' I wanted to know if Coco got one. I thought he deserved a Gold Glove."
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Crisp, who was spectacular in center field, was denied. However, Youkilis -- mostly known for his bat -- got rewarded for years of hard work on the other side of the ball. A third baseman by trade, Youkilis, who made three errors at the hot corner in 2007, has become a pure stopper on the other side of the diamond.
"All the time and all the ground balls and all the listening to coaches about the right approach, it pays off," said Youkilis. "I think that's the biggest thing that I tell kids is, 'You've got to listen and try to put it into the daily grind of a game.' You can take ground balls all day but if you don't put it into a game situation, it doesn't pay off. All that hard work paid off."
Of course, Youkilis is no stranger to working at any facet of the game, and that has made him a fan favorite from basically the day he arrived in Boston.
Passion of the Youk
There is an unwritten rule in the Red Sox's dugout. If Youkilis makes an out, keep your head up. Objects are bound to fly.
"That's what makes him so passionate about the game and I don't think anyone is ever going to take the fire away from him," Pedroia said.
The fire Youkilis plays with is not going to change. And he's not going to apologize for it. In many ways, that type of intensity has made the Cincinnati native such a perfect fit in the city where he makes his baseball living.
For all those years, Yankees fans loved the helmet-throwing Paul O'Neill while opposing fans and maybe even some opposing players labeled him a whiner. The same goes for Youkilis.
"I think I try to pride myself on playing the game right. Of course, there's some people that don't like the way you go about your business," said Youkilis. "What I've found is you can't please everybody. There's people out there that work some hard jobs and like guys that play hard, and that's what I'm going to do, I'm going to play hard. I play with a lot of passion. This is my life and something I take very seriously. I don't take the game for granted."
|"There's not a pitch in the game that he's not 100 percent focused in on and locked in."|
|-- Dustin Pedroia|
In Boston's 14-game march to the World Series championship, Youkilis hit .388 with four doubles, four homers and 10 RBIs. He belted a home run in his first at-bat of Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the Angels. Down, 3-1, to the Indians in the ALCS, Youkilis came through again, setting an early tone in Game 5 with a rocket homer to left in the first.
"I didn't change the way I woke up in the morning or where I went to eat," Youkilis said. "I didn't change anything. I just took it like it was a normal game and didn't put any pressure on myself. I think the biggest thing is if you play the same way in Spring Training to the end of October ... That's what I try and do, just grind it out and play hard and not change anything about my game."
That's why his teammates love playing with him.
"You know what you're going to get with him every day," said Pedroia. "He plays his butt off. There's not a pitch in the game that he's not 100 percent focused in on and locked in. It's awesome having him out there on defense, and offensively you know what you're going to get. He grinds out every at-bat, he takes his walks. He's a great player."
After paying his dues his first few years, Youkilis finally got a nice payday this season. Eligible to go to arbitration for the first time, Youkilis instead settled with the Red Sox on a $3 million contract. Not that the heftier check will lighten him up any between the lines.
"To me, I'm never going to change," Youkilis said. "Money, or this and that, that's not really my mindset. I know I'm making a lot more money than I did last year but it doesn't even mean anything to me when I go out on to the field. I just go out and play hard. To me, I'm probably going to play harder if I have more money."
Another underrated aspect of Youkilis is his adaptability. He can, and has, hit at any spot in the lineup. Though he's now entrenched as a first baseman, Sox manager Terry Francona knows that any time Mike Lowell needs a day off, Youkilis can seamlessly slide back to his old position. And when David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez gets a day off, count on Youkilis hitting either third or fourth.
"He won the Gold Glove at first. He can go play third. You can hit him anywhere in the lineup, from one through nine. And he cares about winning," Francona said. "He's a good player. Any time you have a few guys that you can kind of bounce around, it really helps. If somebody takes a day off, you can fill that spot in the batting order and you don't miss much. That's important."
|"I just like to help out kids who are really struggling."|
|-- Kevin Youkilis|
"He's definitely a piece that keeps that line moving," said Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. "I think his approach allows for situations to develop, which puts a lot more pressure on a pitcher."
Francona can move Youkilis around the lineup like a pinball or tell him to play third base at a moment's notice and it doesn't bother him. Aside from his selflessness, one reason Youkilis adapts so well now is that he spent 2004 and 2005 taking the Boston-Pawtucket shuttle more times than he can remember. And when he was up with the big club and sitting on the bench, it was sometimes agonizing for a guy who loves nothing more than to compete.
"The greatest role I have now is I get to play on an everyday basis," Youkilis said. "That's one thing I love to do, I love playing. The first couple of years were tough where I didn't get to play and I had to watch games. It's not fun. It's a good feeling to know that I'm part of a Boston Red Sox World [Series] championship team."
Last September, almost out of nowhere, Youkilis announced that he had launched his own charity. It's called "Kevin Youkilis Hits For Kids." Youkilis seems to have as much passion for his foundation as he does for the game he loves so much.
In fact, to Youkilis, helping kids in need probably feels more natural than swing a baseball bat.
"In my religion, the Jewish religion, that's one of the biggest things that's taught, is giving a mitzvah, forming a mitzvah," said Youkilis. "I was always taught as a kid giving to charity. You're supposed to give a good amount of charity each and every year. That probably started in my youth.
"I just like to help out kids who are really struggling," said Youkilis. "A lot of the kids we work with, it's just a great thing when you can make a kid smile that's going through some hard times in life and you can give them something to help them on a daily basis. I wish more people, not just athletes, would give people just a little bit of their time. It doesn't take much to just give a little bit of time. It can make a huge difference to a lot of kids."
The power of charity is somewhat intoxicating for Youkilis.
"If you can go to one of our live auctions and see how much money we can raise ... we raised $300,000 in one night," said Youkilis. "That's unbelievable. It's just unbelievable and you know it's going to a good cause. You get to see it implemented into a program and to see the program work, it's even better. The biggest thing we love to do is try to get as many programs out there to help out the youth."
Be it playing flawless defense, refusing to give up an at-bat or working in the community, you can be sure Youkilis is going to put every ounce of his effort into the cause.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.