Kevin Youkilis cannot say he was shocked — shocked! — to be traded.
He knew and the world knew. He was caught in a squeeze play involving surrounding talent, age, and salary. Adrian Gonzalez was going to be the first baseman. David Ortiz remains the best DH in the world. And The Kid, Will Middlebrooks, had to take over at third.
“I was realistic,” Youkilis said. “I put things in place so my wife and family were prepared for it.”
The trade came down a little more than three weeks ago. Kevin Youkilis has exceeded expectations for the White Sox and the White Sox have exceeded expectations for Kevin Youkilis. So far, very good.
Youkilis deserves a proper landing spot. He served the Red Sox very well for 8½ years. He dignified the game with his gritty approach. No manager ever had to prod him to play hard. That always came naturally.
He is no longer here because he was no longer needed, and the longer he remained in Boston the less cost-effective he was going to be. It was strictly business.
That’s the way it is in sports. One day you are The Kid, the Next Great Thing. And then one day you wake up as the Aging Vet. Another Next Great Thing has materialized, and it’s time for you to move on.
But one thing about sports is that one man’s discard can be another man’s treasure. There were many suitors for Youkilis. It is no descent into hyperbole to suggest that in all of major league baseball no team had a more desperate need for a man to play a position than the Chicago White Sox had for a third baseman.
After three weeks, the White Sox love Kevin Youkilis. That’s what happens when you have five game-winning RBIs in your first 14 games. That’s what happens when you have a classic Youkilisian 14-pitch at-bat, culminating in a game-winning sacrifice fly against Kansas City. And that’s what happens when you make a number of sparkling plays at third base.
“I didn’t know he was that good a third baseman,” says Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, who has been announcing the White Sox games on TV for a long time.
Geez, Hawk, why didn’t you ask? We could have told you. And third base isn’t even his best position. Once upon a time he won a Gold Glove at first, if you recall.
Now anyone looking for a little spark, for some fireworks, connected with Youk’s return to Boston Monday night was going to be disappointed. It’s true that manager Bobby Valentine stirred up the locals this past weekend when he referenced the spring training remark he had made concerning Youk’s apparently diminished approach to the game by saying that it seemed to him that Youk did not want to let it go.
Youk wasn’t going to play the game. He made it clear that he had arrived back in Boston to play baseball, not engage in a debate with his old skipper.
“This is not Bobby Valentine vs. Kevin Youkilis, or vice-versa,” he said. “This is the Chicago White Sox vs. the Boston Red Sox.”
He said the kind of things you’d want to hear. His new mates have been great. His new manager, Robin Ventura, has been great. The city of Chicago has been great. This is all boiler-plate stuff.
Things did get a little interesting when he was asked to compare the overall experience of being a White Sox to that of being a Red Sox.
“There’s less drama,” he pointed out. “No offense to you guys [i.e. the media], but here there’s always a story. In Chicago, we play, and then after the game we answer a few questions and go home. There are only four beat writers. One day I was sitting on my stool, waiting, and no one came over to talk. Great. Robin is laid-back. We just play the game. It’s a different entity in the Midwest, I guess.”
“Entity.” There’s a word you don’t usually get out of a ballplayer.
So Kevin Youkilis came back, and the reception was exactly what you would expect. They “Youuuuked” him when he joined his mates for pregame wind sprints. They “Youuuuked” him when they introduced the starting lineups and his face appeared on the big screen. They “Youuuuked” him, and applauded him, for a good 40 seconds when he came to the plate for the first time in the top of the first.
He singled sharply to center his first time up.
He ran the count to 2-and-2 and hit Aaron Cook’s 10th pitch off the left-center field wall for a double his second time up.
He hit one to the gap in right-center for another double his third time up and finished 3 for 4 in Boston’s 5-1 win.
Yeah, he still can play. It’s just that the Red Sox don’t need him and the White Sox do. Kevin Youkilis is a pro. He gets it. No hard feelings.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.