FORT MYERS, Fla. - Kevin Youkilis was one of the players who stood on the outfield grass at JetBlue Park on Friday and watched Tim Wakefield announce his retirement. It was then he realized just how few Red Sox players remain from the history-making 2004 team.
With Wakefield having retired and Jason Varitek apparently headed down the same path, only Youkilis and David Ortiz are left among the curse-busters. For Youkilis, there’s a sense of pride over having lasted so long, but also an increased sense of his own baseball mortality.
“There are only two of us left. It’s crazy,’’ Youkilis said yesterday. “I don’t know if that makes us seem older and how time flies. It’s definitely kind of weird.
“That’s the game of baseball, guys keep coming and going. David and I have definitely gotten a lot closer over the years. It’s one of those things where we sit there and [say], ‘Man, I can’t believe we’re the only ones left here.’ But I guess we have to keep that torch going for as many years as we can.’’
The question is just how many years.
Ortiz accepted arbitration and agreed to a one-year contract. At 36, he’s a year-to-year player, his future almost entirely dependent on his ability to keep producing at the plate.
Youkilis, who turns 33 next month, is in the final year of a four-year, $41.12 million deal. The Red Sox hold a team option worth $13 million for next season or can buy Youkilis out for $1 million.
This season could be his last with the Red Sox. But Youkilis said landing a new deal is not something he thinks about.
“I already hit the jackpot in monetary terms in the way I look at life. I live a different kind of lifestyle where I’m not flashy and all that. Money is not why I play this game. I play this game because I love the game and I love going out there and competing. That’s why I play baseball,’’ he said.
“I think more and friends and family are like, ‘You need to get this big deal, three years and so and so.’ I can’t worry about that. Once you start worrying about money and contracts and all that, that’s when you have outside things in your head. When you’re getting up and facing Felix Hernandez, you can’t be worrying about your contract.’’
Youkilis hit a career-worst .258 last season and his .833 OPS was the lowest it has been since 2006. He played virtually the entire season with a sore left hip caused by bursitis. By the end of the season, lower back stiffness and a sports hernia left him unable to play the final 13 games.
The injuries also affected Youkilis defensively as his lateral range was reduced to a step or two.
“He was limited,’’ said manager Bobby Valentine, who spent part of the winter watching tape of his new players. “His ability to turn and throw and turn and catch were not what he would want it to be, I’m sure.’’
According to Valentine, the Red Sox defensive metrics showed Youkilis having poor range to his right and left but still able to make plays coming in. As measured by the width of a baseball, Youkilis was minus-3 to the right, minus-5 to the left and plus-2 coming in.
He had surgery shortly after the season to repair the hernia and went through extensive rehabilitation to knock the inflammation out of his hip. Now, finally, Youkilis feels healthy again.
The other pain he felt was having to watch the team collapse in September without being able to help prevent it.
“I don’t like sitting back and watching baseball. I like playing baseball,’’ Youkilis said. “I had to sit back there and see all the losing and go in the clubhouse and see guys so upset and hurt.
“It was tough; it was tough to watch. It hurts more just to sit back and see guys pretty upset and beat up mentally from losing.’’
Youkilis has talked in the past about playing for his hometown Cincinnati Reds some day. But he said yesterday he would like to end his career with the Red Sox and cheered the hiring of Valentine, whom he described as having more energy than any man he has ever met. The idea of spending his entire career with the same team has great appeal.
In the end, the Red Sox will decide what happens. But by playing well, Youkilis can dictate his future to a large degree.
“My whole job is to win ballgames. I know if I’m out there starting every day and we win a World Series, there’s a good chance I might come back. That’s my whole goal,’’ he said. “I know if we win and we win a World Series, it’s going to be hard for them not to bring me back. I’m going to make it as hard on them as possible not to bring me back.’’