Tonight, the Boston Red Sox take on the Chicago White Sox in the opening game of a four-game series. Normally, this would be a fairly straightforward series between an overachieving AL Central squad and an underachieving Boston team. Just like every July. But instead, due to the whims of fate, injury, and Bobby Valentine, tonight's game has Special Significance. Because Kevin Youkilis is coming home.
This won't be the first time a former Red Sox player has returned to Fenway after departing under less-than-happy circumstances. The one that most readily comes to mind is the return of Nomar Garciaparra in 2009. Sent to the Cubs at the deadline in 2004, Nomar left under a cloud. It was generally assumed that he was traded not just because Boston saw an opportunity to improve defensively, but because Nomar had become a drag on the clubhouse emotionally, due to his numerous skill-sapping injuries and clashes with management. Now that I think of it, it's kind of a terrifying comp to Youkilis. Nomar was a fan favorite (complete with heavily-accented nickname), one of the most productive players in the league until injuries began to take their toll. During the 2004 season, those injuries kept him on the bench much of the time, and hampered his effectiveness when he was on the field. He also, it was generally believed, harbored ill will toward the front office, who had in the offseason attempted to trade him to the White Sox (a trade Nomar apparently found out about via ESPN, rather than from the team).
Of course, the trade of Nomar Garciaparra and the handing of shortstop to defensive whiz Orlando Cabrera turned out pretty well, with the team roaring into the playoffs and eventually winning the franchise's first title in nearly a century. So when Nomar returned to Boston for the first time five years later, playing first base and wearing the uniform of the Oakland A's, the pain had dulled. Success and time had healed whatever rift might have existed, and the crowd rose as one to thank Nomar for the good times he'd given us, for the privilege of watching a shoulda-been Hall of Famer in his prime.
With Kevin Youkilis, that's not going to be the case. He was only traded three weeks ago. All the parties involved are still around, all the wounds are still open. Fortunately, it won't matter. The crowd's still going to "YOUK" lustily, as well they should. Sometimes getting to say goodbye isn't a bad thing.
All of the storylines surrounding Youk's comeback are going to focus on his "feud" with Bobby Valentine, and it's not entirely unreasonable that they should. It's pretty clear, even from here in the peanut gallery, that the two didn't get along. Was it some philosophical difference that came to light on Valentine's first day and just got worse? Did it start with Bobby V's public questioning of Youkilis's focus on the game? Does Bobby just hate goatees, or Youk hate alternative sandwich forms? Short of a full confessional from either or both, it's unlikely that we'll ever know.
Things got all the more fun (for variable values of fun) yesterday, when reporters did that thing they do where they ask Bobby Valentine a direct question, and Bobby V did that thing he does where he gives a direct answer. In April, I quoted Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra on this exact tendency: "[Valentine] is one of those guys who is smart enough to see that empty cliches are not a meaningful form of communication, but not smart enough to realize that there's a reason why managers use all of those empty cliches." And damn if he didn't do it again. When asked about his relationship with Youk, Valentine said "I think the comment that I made early, he made a big issue out of and I don't think he ever wanted to get over it."
Here we have a situation where everyone screwed up. Bobby Valentine, because he's Bobby Valentine and he was new to these players, questioned Youkilis's focus in front of reporters. Kevin Youkilis, because he's Kevin Youkilis and focus and drive are what got him into the bigs, took it personally. And one suspects, given how he plays, that Youk is the grudge-holding sort. Not unreasonable here, but there are certainly plenty of people who would decide that Valentine's comment, as insulting as it was, wasn't worth holding onto. Youk not being one of those people isn't a flaw, necessarily. But it does mean that any productive relationship between the two was pretty well doomed. Had Will Middlebrooks not been playing well, or Youkilis had been healthier, or the front office hadn't thrown in so much on hiring Valentine in the first place, maybe it would have been the manager who found himself elsewhere. Such is fate.
So now Youkilis is in Chicago, and he's been doing well. Bobby V's still in Boston, and he's doing well when he isn't bunting. Middlebrooks looks to be heating up, and is saying all the right things (one might even say the cliches) about his relationship with Youk. Hell, Zach Stewart's even been pitching halfway decently. As bad as everything leading into this trade was, it's possible that it's worked out for everyone involved.
Last night my girlfriend and I spent half an hour tearing our bedroom apart. There wasn't a spider on the loose, or a lost checkbook on rent day. No, the missing item was something far more basic. Somewhere in this room, defying all our efforts to find it, was a blue t-shirt with "YOUKILIS 20" printed on the back. We weren't looking for it to declare ourselves opposed to #TeamBobbyV, nor call for some sort of redo on the trade. We were looking for it because tonight in the grandstand, we'll see an old friend come into the Fenway batter's box, a familiar stance in an unfamiliar uniform. We'll cheer him in the strange, resonant way we always used to, and for a moment, things will be as they were. Then a pitch will be thrown, and reality will set in again, the reality that Kevin Youkilis is no longer on the Red Sox. Except on that damn shirt, should we ever manage to find it.
Welcome back to Boston, Youk. We hope you enjoy the series, hit well, and lose every single game. I think you'd want nothing less from us.