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BOSTON (CBS) — When Kevin Youkilis steps into the batter’s box at Fenway Park this week, he’ll hear the usual chorus of “Youuuuukkk” coming from the stands.
However, that deep bellowing from the 38,000 or so fans inside Fenway seems to be just about the only vocal support for the veteran Red Sox infielder these days, as everyone from sports radio callers to national analysts seems to have come to the same conclusion: The sooner the Red Sox part ways with Youkilis, the better.
How exactly did we get here?
Since 2006, Youkilis has been more than a fan favorite in Boston. He had come to represent everything any fan would ever want out of a major league ballplayer. He could hit for average and for power, he was willing to play any position the manager asked him to play, he worked through seemingly perpetual injury problems and he never took one pitch for granted in his entire career. Sure, he rubbed some people the wrong way for complaining with umpires too often, but most onlookers understood that such outbursts were the result of a guy who cared. And isn’t that, above all else, the mentality you like to see in an All-Star?
That act, though, has apparently run its course, and seemingly everybody who cares about the Red Sox or makes a living talking about the team is now happily counting the days until he no longer wears a B on his hat.
It’s an odd (and rather rapid) fall from grace, particularly because it seems rooted in factors beyond his play on the field. That play on the field, to be fair, has not been up to Youkilis’ standards. If you combine this season and last year, he’s played 159 games, essentially a full season. In that span, he’s hit .247 with a .357 on-base percentage, 21 home runs, 93 RBIs and a .788 OPS. The numbers represent a drop-off from 2006-10, when he hit .297 with a .903 OPS and averaged 135 games played per season, but they’re still fairly decent for a player entering his mid-30s.
But the movement to get Youkilis out of town ASAP appears to be about many other “things.” What those “things” are isn’t always clear.
One aspect that makes the most sense is the logjam of human beings in the Red Sox lineup. The short-term fix of sticking the impossibly slow Adrian Gonzalez in right field is becoming a little too long term, and keeping Will Middlebrooks out of the lineup hurts the team each and every time it happens. The desire to eliminate Youkilis from that equation makes sense.
But there have been such situations in the past, and they rarely involved the majority of a fan base to root hard to ship out a player who’s been a part of championships, has been featured on countless T-shirts and bumper stickers and has generally been considered a good citizen on and off the field.
“Youk needs to go, sooner rather than later, for the sake of everyone involved,” Ken Rosenthal wrote on Monday, saying such a move would be one of four steps for the Sox to become division champs.
To his credit, Youkilis hasn’t really complained about his unfavorable situation, even though he has to be itching to come out and be honest. It’s no fun when your new manager questions your focus in the opening month of the season, it’s no fun when your name’s thrown into trade talks immediately after you get married and start a family, and it’s no fun to hear the fan base beg for the day that you’re traded away.
So why does it keep happening?
For one, there are perceptions — perceptions that Youkilis was the “snitch” for that Boston Globe article, that he’s a bad clubhouse influence and that getting rid of him in exchange for nothing would be a fine example of addition by subtraction. The last time any of us said that, it was regarding Manny Ramirez, one of the great all-time Red Sox hitters who had finally reached the point of no return when he was shoving a 64-year-old team employee to the ground and slapping a teammate (interestingly enough, Youkilis) in the dugout during a game. Manny had gone off the deep end, and he had to go. But Youkilis has done nothing nearly on that level. The worst thing Youkilis has done (that we know of) is slump. Such a change in behavior generally calls for fans to ask that a player gets sat on the bench, not traded away for nothing.
Really, the solution of keeping Youkilis as a bench player is one that would help the Red Sox a whole lot more than shipping him away and paying most of his salary to play for another team. Youkilis being available off the bench and for an occasional start, even with his recent hitting woes, would be more than a minor upgrade over Nick Punto, Darnell McDonald or outfielders who wear jersey numbers in the 60s and 70s.
Yet, the distaste for Youkilis persists. Curious to find out where exactly certain Red Sox players sit in current fans’ minds, I ran an informal poll on Twitter, asking fans which players were the least likable on the roster. While Josh Beckett and John Lackey were unsurprisingly atop almost everyone’s list, Youkilis was not far behind himself. That’s a truly curious result. The only stain on Youkilis is the perception that he “was a rat” and spoke anonymously to the Globe about the unprofessional behavior of Beckett, Lackey and the rest of the pitching staff last September. That is purely speculation, but even if it is 100 percent true, it is a bit odd that “ratting” on the most unlikable players on the team would make that “rat” a pariah.
Alas, that is the case of Youkilis. More than anything else, he’s likely the victim of being an underperforming player on a team that’s not living up to its potential. And in Boston, when the team isn’t winning, fans (and media) need scapegoats. And because you can’t blame injuries, and you can’t blame people like Punto or Ryan Sweeney or Daniel Nava, you’re left with no other choice but to take it out on the big-money guys. And in the case of Youkilis, it just might lead to an unceremonious departure from the team that made him a star and a fan base that adored him.
The split has looked to be inevitable for some time now, and while it may help clear up the Middlebrooks/Gonzalez dilemma, don’t think for a second it will help turn the Red Sox’ season around.
When he steps to bat against Miami and Atlanta this week, Youkilis ought to take a moment to soak in those “Youuuuukkk” cheers from the home crowd. It won’t be long, it seems, before he’ll never hear it in Boston again.
And he wouldn’t be wrong to wonder why.