FORT MYERS, Fla. — He’s 30 years old now. He’s the de facto captain of the Red Sox. He’s what Derek Jeter has been with the Yankees for the last two decades. He’s the everyday leader.
Most important, Dustin Pedroia is healthy again. Pedroia had surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb last November, and Sunday he made his first appearance in the Red Sox clubhouse.
“Everything went good with the surgery,’’ said Pedroia. “They put a pin in it for four weeks, but now the pin is gone. I kind of got a late start, but the rehab was great. I feel healthy. No setbacks. Everything’s great.’’
Pedroia has seen fire and rain in his seven-plus seasons in Boston. He was a rookie when the Sox won the 2007 World Series. He was Most Valuable Player of the American League when the Sox got to the seventh game of the ALCS one year later. (“A huge letdown. We were four or five innings away. You don’t want that feeling. Once you win, you want to stay there and be on top all the time. It gives us something to push for.’’) He lived through the final days of Terry Francona, the clown show of Bobby Valentine, and the worst-to-first redemption tour of 2013.
His love of all things Red Sox was tested after his pal Tito was fired, and reports surfaced of clubhouse chicken and beer. Pedroia remembers going to the 2011 Gold Glove ceremony in New York and being embarrassed when Bob Costas announced, “The bar is closed — except for folks from the Red Sox table.’’ A few months later, Pedroia took some heat when he said, “That’s not the way we do things here,’’ after Bobby V insulted Kevin Youkilis.
Pedroia never made any deal out of it, but the rest of us remember him playing the final games of the 2012 train-wreck season with a broken bone in his hand. Those were dark days for everyone associated with the organization. The winters of 2011 and 2012 were long and cold.
“It was just frustration,’’ recalled Pedroia. “You just want to be proud of the way your team plays and proud of the way everybody looks at your team. I was proud of my teammates 100 percent, but the perception that we were getting, I wasn’t proud of. You’re frustrated and you want that to change. I think after last year, that did change.’’
Amen. All perceptions of the Red Sox changed for the better in 2013. And you can count Pedroia as a guy who saw it from the very first day of spring training.
All magic aside, the 2013 season was a bit of a struggle for Pedroia. He tore the ligament in his thumb while making a headfirst slide into first base on Opening Day in New York, but he never came out of the lineup. Pedroia played 160 games with the injury, batting .301 with nine homers and 84 RBIs. His slugging percentage dipped to a career-low .415, but he never used the injury as an excuse.
“You just figure it out,’’ he said. “Try to get hits, man. That’s it. It’s fine now. It’s fixed up a bit. Once I got the pin out, it felt a lot better. It feels good to have that hand strength back. It seemed like it was a real short offseason. I got home, had the surgery, was in a cast for four weeks, and went on vacation for 10 days. Then it was rehab and training and being with the family. It happened real quick. You don’t have that much time to enjoy it.’’
He was almost Jeter-like with his answers Sunday. He was friendly, measured, and reserved.
“We’ve got to work extra hard, just like we did last year,” Pedroia said. “A lot of guys put in the effort and played the game the right way and had the right mind-set.’’
What about the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury?
“Guys are going to have to step up and overcome the loss,” Pedroia said. “Bogey [rookie Xander Bogaerts] is going to be fine. Butter [coach Brian Butterfield] will make sure that everyone is on the same page on our defense. His ability is through the roof and he’s willing to put the time in and learn and get better every day.
“I’m not thinking anything about last year. I’m thinking about today’s practice and what we’ve got to do. We’ll get better every day and form that team that we want. It’s fun. The guys that kind of turned it around, we know what to expect. We can focus on the game and trying to get better and not worry about other things. We talked during the offseason about setting a tone. I love competing and winning as a team. The funnest part is winning and seeing the looks on the guys’ faces. That’s what makes it special.’’
Pedroia said he’s modified his offseason conditioning program.
“You’ve got to be smarter,” he said. “I can’t do the stuff that I did when I was 22, 23 years old. You can’t go out there and do two-a-days. I’d lift in the morning and then go hit, then eat lunch and go do conditioning. It was like six hours.’’
Asked about Will Middlebrooks having a “breakout year,’’ Pedroia said he hopes everyone has a breakout year. Asked about his favorite team, the Sacramento Kings, he said, “We’re terrible. We need to start losing games.’’ Asked about his facial hair (he has much less than at the end of last season), he said, “This is kind of a beard. I don’t even know what this is.’’
Are the 2014 Red Sox the team to beat?
“We’re not playing a game today,” he said. “We just take it day by day, man. I think we play Baltimore in seven weeks. Everyone is motivated to keep going and never be satisfied. That’s what makes this group fun to be around. We’re all going to push each other and make sure that we’re respecting the game and playing the game the right way. If we do that, we should be all right.’’