It would probably require living in a state of denial to recognize this was coming—after all, from the moment of the Adrian Gonzalez trade, the writing was on the wall. Making a move from first base to third base in the later stages of a career doesn't happen very often, and for good reason: it was for the very reason that we saw play out achingly slowly over the last year and a half. Reflexes slow down, and the mobility required for third (but not first) wanes. The arrival of a new promising young player—the renewal of the life blood of any baseball team—only hastened the inevitable.
But all this is in the epilogue of Kevin Youkilis's tenure with the Red Sox. The heyday was an amazing thing to behold. Watching a Youk at-bat was watching a true artist at work. Okay, perhaps it was the work of an artist who was also a demented madman, but it was art nonetheless. That inimitable batting stance and legendary patience was the stuff of legend. His patience was in particular noteworthy: unlike many a hack in the batter's box, Youkilis would never swing on a 3-0 pitch. Ever. It didn't matter how tasty a meatball the opposing pitcher threw; his bat remained firmly overhead. But then again, he didn't need it. He could wear out any pitcher, and wait for "his" pitch to come. And when it did, look out—particularly if you were seated in the Monster seats. OPS was not something you really had to worry about with Youk. The only thing you worried about was how many pitches he was going to take... in the form of bruises.
And if the batting wasn't enough to endear him in our hearts, there was also the fielding. How often do you measure a player's errorless streaks in seasons? You had total confidence that if the ball was headed Youk's way at first, the play would be made. If it was at all possible, the job would get done. No fuss, no muss. His work at third base was also way above-average, even if it didn't quite reach the same rarefied air as his work at first base.
More thoughts after the jump.
At either base, though, you knew he was a dirt dog through and through: no play was too tough to try, regardless of how close it took him to doom (or the clubhouse, or the stands, or anything else in the vicinity). A filthy uniform and Youkilis seemed to go hand in hand. And it was fun to watch, and something the Fenway faithful fervently followed, with their frequent and fulsome fealties in the form of "Youuuuuuuk" pealing from every corner. But it wasn't just at Fenway that those cries rained down on the field like heavenly hosannas: at half the AL parks, you'd hear that wonderful noise. Even AL East parks weren't safe—not even at Camden Yards or Tropicana.
Above all, however, we must also pay homage to the true key to Youkilis's success, the one thing that separated Youkilis from all other players ever to grace a Red Sox uniform: the beard. Youkilis was the "Greek God of Walks" thanks to Moneyball, but he didn't become Youk—at least not the Youk we will all miss—until the beard showed up. Of course it was to compensate for the loss of the hair upstairs, but it become a manifestation of everything primal. It took on a life of its own, and almost literally at that. (How many other facial hairs had their own Twitter feeds?) You got the feeling that instead of styling gel, it was kept in place through feasting on the blood of the opposing pitchers it faced. The Beard was to Youkilis as the hair was to Samson.
Of course, everything wasn't triples and roses with Youk; there was the frustrating tendency to visit the disabled list on a seemingly annual basis—and often at strategically inopportune times. Many claimed, though, that Youk was much like Kevin Garnett: every at-bat, every putout was so important that it took its toll. Too much intensity led to too many injuries. But there was also (at least allegedly) the problem of sticking his nose in where it didn't belong, and offering opinions when it would be better to keep silent. At the same time, the natural problem is that if he didn't talk, the media would harp on him for avoiding them. All in all, though, his transgressions weren't so serious as to force us to alter our opinions, or to wish for an immediate exit to parts unknown. No one is calling for Youk's head on a platter in the manner that befell Nomar Garciaparra or Manny Ramirez.
We can remember all the good times we had with Youkilis during his time with the Red Sox; there were so many of them, after all. Although he didn't play a part in the epic 2004 ALCS showdown with the Yankees, as he had been left off of the roster, he still had his many moments versus the Sox's archrivals, including several memorable homeruns against Mariano Rivera. And no one who played on both of the two World Series teams of this century can ever be completely forgotten by any true Sox fan. But my mental image of Youk will always be the same: standing in the batter's box, uniform stained with Fenway dirt, bat circling overhead, just about to send that next pitch hurtling out of Fenway.