An ugly, sweaty, man-beast... a grade-A red-ass. - BP Annual, 2010
I've seen him in the shower, and I wouldn't call him the Greek god of anything. - Terry Francona
Now we have to call him Facebush forever. - My girlfriend, upon first seeing Youk's... goatee?
Our professions are rarely written in our faces, but often they still fit. It's difficult to imagine John Kennedy as anything but a politician, Tom Waits as anything but a minstrel, Tom Brady as anything but a star quarterback. And even without the obvious physical traits that cling in our minds to certain walks of life, there's a carriage that comes from a life devoted to a single craft that stands out. The strut of the famed actor, the slouch of the well-regarded poet, the stride of the ace pitcher.
Kevin Youkilis had none of these. A man with the build, glare, and deforested pate of an old-school Teamster, you'd never have known at a glance that he was, for a time, one of the very best players in all of baseball. Never graceful, but terrific with the glove. Never sweet-swinging, but a force at the plate. A man who, in 2008, was the best hitter on a team that employed Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.
Youkilis first gained the attention of the baseball-watching world through a brief passage in Moneyball, when he was referred to as the "Greek God of Walks." a simple example of Paul DePodesta's quest to find underrated talent for Billy Beane, specifically in the realm of OBP. Beane attempted to acquire Youk, but the Sox never fell for Oakland's strategy of assuming no one else could do basic math. Youkilis remained in the Boston system, spending most of 2004 and 2005 on the Pawtucket shuttle, and even warming the bench during the 2004 World Series. (His retirement leaves David Ortiz and Bronson Arroyo as the only active members of The 25. Bronson Arroyo. Baseball is wacky.)
Youk took a full-time role with the Red Sox in 2006, and swiftly became a staple. He put up a .381 OBP with 91 walks, which would have led the team were it not for the two Hall of Famers in the lineup. In 2007, he did more of the same, one of five Boston players to OPS over .800 on their way to a World Series championship. (For perspective on both how the offensive environment has changed and how bad this year's offense was: the only 2014 Red Sox player with over 300 PA to OPS over .800 was Papi, who OPSed .873. He OPSed 1.066 in 2007.)
Also, in one of my favorite Red Sox memories, on May 28, 2007, Kevin Youkilis hit an inside-the-park home run. Kevin Youkilis. But sure, Alex Gordon wouldn't have had any chance.
Youk's 2008 was simply magnificent, as he hit 29 home runs and batted .312/.390/.569. With David Ortiz hurt for some of the season, and Manny traded at the deadline, Youk was the central offensive force of the lineup, although he did lose out on the MVP to Dustin Pedroia. He and Pedroia continued their show into the playoffs, and might well have carried the team to its third championship in five years had it not been for the injuries that weighed down the rest of the lineup. Instead, Boston fell to Tampa in a seven-game thriller of an ALCS, highlighted by their absurd Game Five comeback, in which Youk scored the winning run on a J.D. Drew single.
Youk remained a centerpiece of Boston's team for the next few seasons, providing solid offense in the heart of the lineup and great defense wherever he played. He notably made clear his willingness to play anywhere the team needed him, moving to first to accommodate Adrian Beltre, moving back to third when Boston brought Adrian Gonzalez into the fold. Basically Youk just wanted to play, which endeared him mightily to Boston's fans, whose central requirement for any player is not that they be great, or win every game, but simply that they appear to give a damn. This stood out most prominently in 2011, as Youk faltered to injuries (largely the result of that desire to play every day), and his presence was sorely missed in a lineup of guys who appeared to just want the season over already.
Youk's tenure in Boston ended badly, as always seems to happen with the fan favorites. Bobby Valentine called Youk out for what Valentine interpreted as loafing, which sounded as ridiculous then as it does now. Clearly a change needed to be made, and with Will Middlebrooks tearing AAA to shreds, Youk lost the battle. He spent the remainder of 2012 in Chicago, then signed with New York the following year, although nagging injuries limited him to 28 games. He spent this season in Japan before hanging up the spikes for good.
Kevin Youkilis spent his career as a walking reminder that baseball is a bizarre, unpredictable sport. Youk always failed the old legendary "eye test," his stance was ridiculous, his swing too violent. A quick glance revealed far more sweat than grace. But, oh, that eye at the plate. The on-base skills were legit, and there for anyone with a calculator to see. A willingness to do the numbers gave Youk his chance. But his success, and the fan's love for him, were legitimately intertwined with good old heart and hustle. Youk was an old-school player with a new-school stat line, and every minute was fun to watch.
So thanks for the years, Youk. For the ring in 2007, the near-ring in 2008. For the sweat, dirt, blood, and sweat. For the endless and hilarious innovations in facial hair. For the Biz Markie singalongs, which were basically the only happy part of September 2011. For the fond memories we'll have every time we cheer MOOOKKK for the new kid. And of course, we'll always have this.