Theo Epstein and Terry Francona are busy guys with important jobs, not always eager to talk about their Red Sox years, which were important but did not end well.
Both responded immediately when I reached out Monday regarding the retirement of Dustin Pedroia.
“It’s a combination of sadness and real appreciation,” Epstein said of a player he drafted in the second round out of Arizona State in 2004. “It’s tough to see someone like him, whose heart would allow him to accomplish anything he wanted, not go out on his own terms.
“But at the same time, it gives everyone an opportunity to think back at everything he accomplished and everything he meant to the Red Sox and how this entire era wouldn’t have been possible without him.
“He was the emotional epicenter of everything — the first homegrown guy from this generation to really make an impact and get us from the first time in ’04 to ’07 and everything good that happened beyond.
“No one has been around a player with bigger heart and determination, or a bigger chip on his shoulder.”
Pedroia was listed at 5 feet 9 inches, 165 pounds, which was generous. No one could believe the Sox “wasted” their first 2004 draft pick on the scrawny second baseman.
“That started right in the beginning, even in the draft room,” remembered Epstein, the Red Sox general manager at the time. “There were some strange looks, because he didn’t have the prototypical body to be picked up in the second round.
“When we first signed him and sent him out to Augusta [Ga.] in low A ball to work out with the team and play for a week or two, our coaching staff called and asked if we sent the right guy.
“He was not impressive physically and never put on a great show in batting practice. You expect your first pick to have a little more speed and athleticism, and he had none of those things. He was never going to be a workout warrior, so they were very skeptical.
“Then the games started. Back then, our people would call in and leave game reports on voicemail, and right from the first game, it was, ‘Yeah, Pedroia went 3 for 4 with two rocket doubles in the gap and made three diving plays and a heads-up baserunning play and dominated every phase of this game. Yeah, we were wrong. Can’t judge this guy by the workouts. He’s a pretty good player.’
“It was like that at every level. There was some skepticism and there was doubt until the game started, and then he was the manager’s favorite player. Right up to Tito.”
“He was, I don’t want to say ‘pudgy,’ but he wasn’t real fast when he came to the big leagues,” said Francona, Pedroia’s first manager in the majors. “We pinch ran for him and that just pissed him off. I told him, ‘Hey, man, if you run better, I won’t.’ And the next year he came back and stole 20 bases. That’s just him.”
“He actually gained some speed,” said Epstein. “That’s almost impossible. I can’t ever remember it happening. It always goes in the other direction.
“No one did more with the physical ability he had. He just absolutely maximized his God-given abilities with sheer determination and great instincts.”
Pedroia had just turned 23 when he was called to the big leagues in August 2006. Batting primarily at the bottom of the lineup, he hit .191 in 31 games as the Sox fell from contention.
In 2007, he was American League Rookie of the Year and the Red Sox won the World Series. The next year, at the age of 25, Pedroia was MVP, batting .326 with 17 homers, 83 RBIs, and those 20 stolen bases in 21 attempts. He won a Gold Glove, with only six errors in 157 games.
As of 2008, Pedroia was one of only eight players who could claim an MVP, Rookie of the Year, World Series championship, and Gold Glove. The other seven were Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson, Cal Ripken Jr., and Albert Pujols.
Among Red Sox MVPs, he stands with Tris Speaker, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Jackie Jensen, Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, Roger Clemens, Mo Vaughn, and Mookie Betts.
“When he walked in the room, the lights got a little brighter,” Francona recalled. “He willed himself to be the ultimate team player. I probably put too much on him because I trusted him so much. He was like Radar O’Reilly. If you were thinking something and you said it, you’d look up and he’d be like, ‘OK, OK, I got it.’
“He was always mad for the right reasons when we lost. It wasn’t because he didn’t get hits. He cared so deeply about all the right things. He was just such a competitor and he’s so much of what’s good in our game.”
At his retirement Zoom presser Monday, Pedroia spoke of his love of baseball and being a Little Leaguer who’d be dressed and ready for a noon game at 5 a.m.
It was the same in Boston.
“Dustin and [his wife] Kelli lived near Fenway, and he would sit by the window and wait for the gate to open at Fenway and then come to the ballpark,” said Francona. “That kind of encapsulates him. He was a baseball player. He woke up in the morning to kick your ass, and it was nice being in the same uniform as him.”
In some ways, Pedroia was a pocket-sized Cam Neely. He was a rugged, stand-up guy, a valued teammate who had his career cut short by an opponent’s dirty play. Manny Machado was Pedroia’s Ulf Samuelsson.
“Dustin played with reckless abandon, and it’s not a surprise that he was a star who burned out relatively quickly,” said Epstein. “But look at that [expletive] career. How could you ask for anything more? We don’t even come close to winning the World Series without him.”
“I hope Boston fans understand what they had, because he’s as special as anyone I’ve ever been around,” added Francona. “I expect they do. If they don’t, they missed out on something pretty incredible.”
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