Thursday, August 27, 2009

Youk’s Fuel

There's a pretty good chance you have fueled Kevin Youkilis' fire. Photo from this site.

If I hadn’t gone to the well so frequently in the last couple weeks with Q&As—and wasn’t planning to post a Kevin Millar Q&A tomorrow morning with the Blue Jays coming to town for a weekend series—I would have posted today the Kevin Youkilis interview I conducted for Fighting Words in September 2007.

I’ll post the Youkilis Q&A sometime in the next few weeks. In the meantime, I’ll say (or write) that I was pleasantly surprised at how well the interview went, given how Youkilis seemed as fond of the media then as he did in speaking to Dan Shaughnessy Tuesday (Youkilis clarified his comments yesterday and said he was not angry with the fans). But Youkilis was expansive two years ago in describing the negativity players perceive from the media, the awkwardness of celebrity and why he was more intense and less approachable as a regular than as a reserve.

It’s hard to believe now, but when Youkilis joined the big club in 2004, he fit in seamlessly with the goofy, endearingly idiotic likes of Millar, Johnny Damon, Bronson Arroyo, et al. In fact, Youkilis contributed background vocals to Arroyo’s CD in 2005 and joined Damon in backing up Arroyo at a concert during the All-Star Break.

Youkilis was decidedly less amiable in 2005, which I figured was a byproduct of riding the Boston-to-Pawtucket shuttle all year long, but the gruffness was a sign of things to come. The persona of the Sox, too, began to change in 2005 and particularly during Youkilis’ first season as a regular in 2006, and I have often wondered what Youkilis’ public persona would be like if the idiots still ruled the roost.

Dustin Pedroia can walk up and down the dugout talking trash, complain about the media alternately praising and burying the Sox vis a vis the Yankees and rail at skeptics seen and unseen, yet he does it all with an impish grin that implies even he doesn’t believe everything he says.

But there’s no sense of winking self-awareness coming from the perpetually scowling Youkilis, who seems to get both better and unhappier by the day. He’s a perennial MVP candidate, one of the Sox’ building blocks and rich beyond all comprehension, but you wouldn’t know it by watching him or reading his comments.

It doesn’t seem to make any sense, especially his complaining about negative Boston fans. Youkilis spent most of his minor league days in New England, which made him a cult hero to Sox devotees long before he even appeared at Fenway Park. If he’s not the favorite player among the faithful, then he’s surely in the top three with Pedroia and David Ortiz.

But maybe Youkilis’ words and actions are actually providing a glimpse into what drives a superstar, especially one who was never pegged for greatness , has always felt the need to prove himself in order to fit in and who is alternately motivated and pursued by unpleasant memories. All pro athletes use slights, real and perceived, to stoke their competitive fires, but Youkilis doesn’t have to dig too deep to find some fuel.

I don’t think there are too many superstars who were pudgy as kids—even today, one look at Youkilis indicates he probably wasn’t among the first kids picked in gym class—and who played four years at a non-descript Division I school before being drafted as an eighth-round afterthought.

“That’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with—sometimes, I’ve got to let that go and not think I have to prove myself all the time,” Youkilis said in September 2007. “But it’s in my nature, since day one, ever since I was young. [He has been] trying to prove myself since I was like 11, 12 years old. It’s been something that’s going on for a long time. Hopefully, at some point, it all goes away and I don’t have to worry about it.”

Youkilis also hinted at some darker childhood moments last month, when he spoke to a group of Needham teenagers about the suicide deaths of three of his closest friends. Pedroia is the one who has authored an autobiography, but the more I think about it and the more he speaks, the more I think the really interesting story would be the one penned by Youkilis.

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