As Dustin Pedroia digested his career, he did not get lost in the awards or the numbers. In announcing his retirement, the 37-year-old second baseman expressed his greatest satisfaction in the manner in which he greeted every opportunity to take the field.
“I played every game,” said Pedroia, “like it was my last one.”
But what did his last one actually look like?
No one realized that an appearance with Double A Portland against the Altoona Curve on May 24, 2019, at Hadlock Field would be Pedroia’s final game. To the contrary, Pedroia appeared to be nearing a return to the big leagues.
While his departure from a game at Yankee Stadium April 17 had set off alarms, Pedroia showed progress throughout May. He spent a week with Portland at the start of the month, and following a week working out with the Red Sox at Fenway Park, he joined Triple A Pawtucket, where he played five games from May 17-22.
“He’s getting close,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said as Pedroia prepared to join Portland. “He’s in a good spot.”
That was the impression that Sea Dogs infielder Bobby Dalbec got when he received a text from Pedroia around 10 a.m. on May 24 — roughly eight hours before the game.
“He was at the field already,” Dalbec recalled. “He said, ‘Wind is blowing out. Let’s watch some film and hit early.’ ”
Dalbec, who had been struggling to find consistency in his mechanics, arrived around 11:30. Pedroia identified some glitches in Dalbec’s swing, and the two worked to iron them out in the batting cage.
“I kind of tore it up after that,” said Dalbec. “A lot of that was due to him just taking the time to work with me.”
Dalbec wasn’t alone. Pedroia made a point of connecting with his minor league teammates during his rehab assignments that month.
C.J. Chatham, the Sea Dogs shortstop, marveled at the chance to locker next to Pedroia and watch his work at second base.
“I wish it would have been in the major leagues,” said Chatham, “but at the end of the day, being able to be with such a legend meant a lot.”
“He definitely was in the middle of the clubhouse, hanging out with the guys,” said Joe Oliver, Portland’s manager that year. “He was telling stories, listening to stories, interacting. He was in there giving back every ounce that he could.
“It was really nice to sit back and watch the players gravitate to him. He welcomed that. The kids responded to him.”
Members of the coaching staff raved about how Pedroia led by example, preparing meticulously for minor league games as he would at the highest level. Beyond that, he spent hours in the trainer’s room to prepare physically after the half-dozen knee surgeries he’d undergone in the prior two years, a sign of the commitment to his craft that made an impression on younger players.
Despite those dutiful preparations, those around Pedroia realized the steep odds he faced. Mike Antonellis, who had been the radio voice of the Sea Dogs since Pedroia’s first season in 2005, saw how far the veteran was from the player he’d gotten to know as a 21-year-old.
“It was tough,” said Antonellis. “You’d think back to when he was there in ’05 and saying, ‘Wow, this guy has a whole career in front of him.’
“Just seeing his knee [in 2019] — I was able to see him walking around in shorts. To see what that looked like, to see him hit, to see the pain, to see him come out of games, to see the way his at-bats were, you knew this was not going to be easy.”
Yet the difficulty didn’t deter Pedroia — something that offered its own lesson.
“It just shows you can’t let up,” said Dalbec. “If he’s not letting up feeling like that, there’s no excuse for anyone else to let up after being around him.”
Though Pedroia made it through his pregame routines that night, there was a sense that something was amiss. Throughout his rehab, Pedroia had good days and bad, and May 24 was closer to the latter.
“He’s tough,” said Paul Abbott, the Portland pitching coach then. “He’s potentially a Hall of Famer. He’s not going to show anything. I thought he masked it pretty good.
“But just, I don’t know, I think probably he knew something wasn’t quite 100 percent.”
Pedroia grounded into a double play in the first inning, then after making a couple of plays in the field, he struck out on three pitches in the fourth against Altoona righthander James Marvel.
Dalbec, the on-deck hitter, didn’t notice anything in those at-bats. But when Pedroia returned to the dugout, he sought out the trainer and then Oliver.
“He just basically said that was it,” said Oliver. “Nothing glamorous. He just wasn’t feeling right, and he was taking himself out.
“You could see it on his face. He was disappointed and upset that he had to leave the game, because he was really hoping he would be able to play a full game, be productive, and feel like he was making the turn for the right way.”
At Hadlock Field, the home clubhouse is behind the right-field wall, requiring a long walk from the home dugout.
“I remember him with his bats,” said Abbott, “walking back to the clubhouse, and thinking, ‘Oh, shoot. That’s not good.’ ”
“A few people messaged me that, you know, that could be the last time he plays,” said Antonellis. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I hope that’s not it.’ ”
Such a conclusion wasn’t foregone. Pedroia had withstood other setbacks that month and over the two-year arc following the Manny Machado slide that ultimately destroyed his knee.
But ultimately, Pedroia’s knee wouldn’t permit him to take the field, giving out completely in January 2020 and requiring a partial replacement.
His departure from the field that night in Portland marked the last game of his 16-year career in the Red Sox organization. It was an inglorious conclusion to a run filled with glory.
Yet in its own way, Pedroia’s time in Portland added to his legacy — a final contribution to a generation of players to whom he has passed the torch.
“Even though it wasn’t the Dustin Pedroia who could be in the Hall of Fame, it was the Dustin Pedroia approach and the way he went about playing the game,” said Abbott. “Having that opportunity to see that caliber of a guy, it’s got to be invaluable for those guys. It’s a memory they’ll have forever.”
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