The first memories I have watching baseball were in 1998, though I didn’t really know much of what was going on beyond thinking the home run chase was awesome. I slowly became a fan from there, with specific memories of Pedro in 1999 and 2000, but I didn’t really get into it on the day-to-day, minutia level until 2004. Good timing, I know. And so I obviously did get to see and follow most of the Red Sox careers of some of the best and most iconic players the franchise has seen, like David Ortiz and Pedro Martínez and Manny Ramírez and Jason Varitek, among plenty of others. But for that generation of player, the ones that brought home that 2004 title, they were already there when I really started paying attention. It was still gratifying, of course, but it wasn’t the same as watching a career unfold before your very eyes.
And so for me, and for fans whose trajectory watching this team have followed a similar path as mine, the first great Red Sox player we really got to see from beginning to end was Dustin Pedroia. We were there when he first came up and looked so bad there were people who didn’t ever want to see him get another chance. We were there when he then turned around and won Rookie of the Year that same season. We were there when he followed that up with an MVP campaign. We were there for all three of his championships — he wasn’t really any significant part of 2018 on the field, but we’re still counting it — and we were there for all the Gold Gloves and all the All-Star appearances, and everything in between.
When I talk about baseball I typically shy away from the intangible things like grit and work ethic and “gamers” and all of that. It’s not because I don’t think that sort of stuff matters, but rather that I think we, from the outside, are typically far too quick to label someone with one of these tags when the truth is we just really have no idea. With Pedroia, we had an idea. I mean, just look at a picture of the guy. Not to be mean, but like, he’s tiny. He should not be a professional athlete, much less one who was on a clear Hall of Fame track before injuries got in the way. But as much as talk about this stuff can be overdone, he really did have the work ethic and determination and whatever other buzzwords you want to throw out to get the most out of his career.
And yet, having said all of that, it still always bothered me in a weird way that so much of the discussion with Pedroia has always revolved around these intangibles. I mean, like I said, they’re there. It’s undeniable. But the sometimes overdone pushing of this stuff masked the fact that he was a supremely athletic and talented baseball player. Yes, the intangibles helped, but it feels like a disservice to him as an athlete to boil him down to that and that alone. He could do things physically at second base that I’ve never seen anyone do. He had a swing that could get power out of that small frame. That wasn’t intangibles. That was being bananas good at baseball. The dude could ball, and in a strange way that has always felt to have been lost in the lore of his career.
But even beyond the talent, there’s so many specific aspects of Pedroia’s game and overall demeanor that are going to stick with me for the rest of my time thinking about baseball. His swing. We talk a lot about the beautiful swings in the game. Ken Griffey Jr. Robinson Canó. The guys who were just smooth all the way through the zone. Pedroia was basically the complete opposite of those guys, and in his own way it was just as beautiful a swing. This little man with a bat much too large for him violently swinging out of his shoes and producing power he had no business producing. No one can really replicate that swing, and you knew when his swings were going to produce something special.
The personality is something that will stick with me for a long time too. So many of my favorite quotes and interviews from athletes were from Pedroia. From the time he was questioned by a Coors security guard and told them to “Ask Jeff Francis [off of whom he had homered earlier in the World Series] who the f*** I am,” to him being asked about taking a below-market deal to stay with the Red Sox and responding “Are you kidding? I’m rich as f***,” to this gem that if I had heard before today I didn’t remember it, all the way to the iconic Laser Show quote. He was a walking quote machine, which is why I think we’d all be lucky if he decided his next path in this game is in the booth. That’s a conversation for another day though.
But for me, beyond the intangibles, beyond the overall talent, beyond the swing, beyond the quotes, it’s the defense that will stick with the most about Pedroia. Second base is losing its luster as a premium defensive position in today’s game with shifting becoming more and more prevalent, but just look at some old clips of Pedroia if you need a reminder for what a game changer it can be to have someone like him there there. He’s probably the best I’ve ever seen at the position, or at the very least in the conversation, and he could do everything. He had range in both directions. He had ridiculously quick hands. His arm strength was out of this world for that spot on the diamond. And the double plays. Oh, the double plays. The combination of footwork, hand speed, arm strength, and toughness to stay in even with player coming in spikes up (hello Manny Machado) is something I’ve only seen from him. I never want to say I’ll never see anyone do something like I saw in the past, but I suspect at the very least it’ll be a while before I see someone turn two the way Pedroia did in his prime.
We all knew this retirement was coming at one point or another. It’s been inevitable for at least three years now, and really over the last 12 months the question was if he’d get one more at bat, not one more season. He deserved that David Wright-esque send off. Hell, we deserved it. But that’s life sometimes, and if we were being honest we always knew it was a longshot he’d even get that. So we’re left with looking back both at what could have been, as in what could have been a plaque in Cooperstown, but more important what was. And as for the what was, well it was one of the most important players in the history of one of the game’s most stories franchises, and a player who will forever define the team for a certain generation of fans. For all the stars to come after him, good luck living up to it.