Dustin Pedroia’s retirement ceremony Friday at Fenway Park will put a bow on the career of a Red Sox legend: A three-time champion, four-time All-Star, and four-time Gold Glove winner whose place in franchise lore surpasses all of those markers.
The occasion also will offer the opportunity to look beyond the wincingly difficult end of his career, which Pedroia limped through more than three years after a knee injury that ultimately required a partial replacement.
The 37-year-old’s return to Fenway provides the opportunity to recognize all he accomplished and all he invested in his 1,512 regular-season and 51 playoff games. It also provides a chance to consider what preceded the decade-plus that came to be known as the Laser Show. To revisit the insanity, hilarity, and improbability of Pedroia’s ascent to stardom with the Red Sox.
Pedroia shocked everyone with a script (rated R for language and violence committed against baseballs) that still seems more fictional than real.
“Everybody has their Pedroia stories,” said Diamondbacks assistant general manager Amiel Sawdaye, who spent 15 years with the Red Sox in various scouting roles. “There are so many of them.”
The path to the Red Sox
Pedroia marched into the office of then-Arizona State baseball coach Pat Murphy in the fall of 2001. The freshman, wearing a white tank top, cut a memorable figure as he introduced himself.
“He’s all of about 145 pounds, white as a ghost, and he flexes his biceps for me and says, ‘Hey Coach, how do you like those guns?’ ” said Murphy, now the Brewers bench coach. “I snapped back at him, ‘You better be able to catch a ground ball, Pedroia.’ He said, ‘Don’t you worry about that. You’ll never have to have another shortstop for the next three years.’ ”
Pedroia quickly won over Murphy. Scouts were another story. He’d been undrafted out of high school, and it wasn’t easy for him to challenge perceptions.
“The earliest memory I have were those awful uniforms at Arizona State,” said Cubs senior vice president Jason McLeod, who was part of the Red Sox’ scouting brain trust in 2003-04. “They were kind of baggy, they wore their pants up, and when you see Dustin at 5 foot 6 or whatever he is, wearing that uniform, it’s not the most flattering look.”
But when Red Sox area scout Dan Madsen, McLeod, and others saw the Sun Devils shortstop play, the impression became far different. He started at short in every game of his three years with ASU and twice was named College Defensive Player of the Year.
“His hand-eye coordination was just uncanny,” said McLeod. “Every ball just stuck to his glove. It never rattled around.”
At bat, though at times looking like a child swinging a sledgehammer, Pedroia also showed a remarkable ability to barrel the ball regardless of location.
“Big stride, swung out of his [rear], but the contact was just ridiculous,” said McLeod. “He hit everybody, hit every pitch, and hit it all over the yard.”
Yet for much of the scouting community, seeing wasn’t believing. Despite his three years as one of the top college players in the country, there wasn’t a frame of reference for a player with Pedroia’s size and skill set.
So in 2004, a year in which the Red Sox sacrificed their first-round draft pick to sign free agent Keith Foulke, Pedroia remained on the board in the second round, to be taken 65th overall. In an introductory conference call after his selection, Pedroia offered a to-the-point self-assessment for Boston fans.
“The Red Sox are getting a player who’s going to play hard every day, loves to win, and whose main goal is to win a championship,” he said.
On Sept. 20, 2004 — after his minor league debut — Pedroia visited Fenway Park to take stock of his future home. He took batting practice before the game.
“ ‘We just drafted this kid; isn’t he supposed to be a little bit meek and respectful?’ ” Red Sox assistant GM Raquel Ferreira recalled thinking. “He came out guns blazing.
“Most kids that come in when we first draft them, even college kids, are kind of reserved and shy. Dustin just came in and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll suit up [in the big leagues] right now.’ He didn’t care. I just remember [Terry Francona] being like, ‘Who the [expletive] is this guy?’ ”
Pedroia watched a couple of innings with Sawdaye, then an assistant in the Red Sox scouting department, in what was then the 406 Club. The conversation turned to the draft.
“He’s going through the whole process, his agent telling him where he’s going to go. He’s like, ‘After Pick 40, I just shut my computer off. [Expletive] this,’ ” Sawdaye recounted. “I said, ‘Yeah, well, it all worked out in the end. You’re in a great spot.’ ”
Pedroia grudgingly acknowledged that, stared at the field for a few moments, then turned back to Sawdaye.
“He said, ‘[Expletive] those other 64 guys. I’m going to get to the big leagues faster than them anyways,’ ” said Sawdaye. “Typical Pedroia, right?”
The pro debut
From the outset, Pedroia was on an unusual track. Players typically start their pro careers in short-season ball, with advanced college players in the Sox system reporting initially to the Lowell Spinners. But after Pedroia signed with the team in mid July, he was assigned to a full-season affiliate, the Single A Augusta GreenJackets.
“When he showed up, you could tell he hadn’t played in a while,” recalled Red Sox catching coordinator Chad Epperson, the Augusta manager in 2004. “He was a little soft around the waistline. I was like, ‘Wow, this is our first pick?’
“He came into the office, has an Arizona State T-shirt on, baggy shorts. Honestly, he could have been the batboy. I think he was an inch away from being a circle when he got there. He was kind of sloppy.”
Epperson and farm director Ben Cherington outlined their plans. Pedroia would spend five days doing pregame work with the team — two in Augusta, three on the road in Asheville, N.C. — before his first game.
But Pedroia couldn’t make it five days.
“Day 3, he comes into my office — literally we’d just gotten to Asheville,” said Epperson. “He goes, ‘Why the [expletive] ain’t I playing?’ I was like, ‘Whoa! We just talked about this. It’s Day 3.’ He goes, ‘[Expletive] that! I’m ready! I’m ready!’
“I said, ‘Listen, how you feel about yourself and what this organization wants are two different things. They have a format laid out for you.’ He goes, ‘[Expletive] that! Who do I have to call?’
“He’s livid. He ends up talking himself into the [expletive] lineup. I’ve never seen anything like it. Never seen anything like it.”
Pedroia didn’t merely talk himself into the lineup on July 19, 2004. He went 4 for 4 with a pair of doubles.
At one point, he was on first after a single. Brandon Moss — the 2004 South Atlantic League Player of the Year who went on to play more than 1,000 games in the big leagues — blooped a single to right.
“Pedroia never even stops,” said Epperson. “He goes all the way to third, slides in, bang-bang play, he pops up. Brandon Moss, goofy Georgia boy, jogs back to first base. Pedroia’s like, ‘You’ve got to be at [expletive] second!’ I’m like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, we don’t do that here, buddy.’ He screams, ‘[Expletive] that! He’s got to be at second base!’
“Who the [expletive] is this guy?”
With 17 years of hindsight, he has an answer.
“That is who he was,” said Epperson. “He wouldn’t have cared if it was Ty Cobb over there. He’d have yelled at him. It was crazy.”
Pedroia spent just a dozen games in Augusta, hitting .400/.474/.560 with six extra-base hits, six walks, and just three strikeouts in 57 plate appearances before forcing his promotion to High A Sarasota.
Epperson called Todd Claus, the manager in Sarasota, to try to prepare him for the shortstop’s arrival.
“Remain seated until this ride comes to a complete stop,” Epperson recalled saying. “This is going to be some kind of show.”
Even with advance notice, however, Claus couldn’t believe it when he met the team’s top draft pick.
Claus, now the Red Sox international scouting co-director, recalled, “He shows up, comes up and says, ‘Hey, I’m Dustin Pedroia.’ I look at him and say, ‘No, you’re not.’ He says, ‘I’m [expletive] Dustin Pedroia.’ ”
Claus sought out Bill Lajoie, a baseball lifer who was then a special assistant to the GM for the Sox. Claus was new to managing in pro ball, and couldn’t comprehend how the team had used its top pick on this unlikely shortstop.
“I go up to Bill and say, ‘What are we doing, man? I get the whole statistics thing, but he’s 5-6, pudgy, has small hands. This guy is not a big leaguer,’ ” said Claus.
Pedroia’s five weeks in Sarasota forced Claus to reconsider. In 30 games, Pedroia hit .336/.417/.523 with 13 extra-base hits, 13 walks, and four strikeouts. He didn’t commit an error.
“This guy fails every single eye test to a scout,” said Claus. “We scout tools. Dustin Pedroia has skills. To see his skills, you have to see him consistently do it.”
Claus shared that conclusion with Ron Johnson, manager of the Double A Portland Sea Dogs, prior to the 2005 season.
“I said, ‘He’s not going to pass the eye test. You’re not going to get it when you see it. You just have to let him play,’ ” said Claus. “I get a call, like, two months later from R.J. ‘You were right. You’ve just got to let him play.’ ”
Pedroia received an invitation to big league spring training in 2006. The initial impressions again were unfavorable.
“My first impressions? He walked into the clubhouse carrying McDonald’s bags about seven days in a row,” Francona once recalled. “I was like, ‘We need to talk to this kid.’ ”
Eventually, Pedroia would respond by remaking himself physically, making Athletes’ Performance Institute in Arizona a staple of his offseason programs. But in 2006 spring training, he never got the chance to erase that first impression, as he suffered a shoulder strain on a check-swing at the start of the exhibition season.
In Triple A Pawtucket that year, Pedroia struggled initially before his season got on track. Just after he turned 23, the Red Sox called him up for his big league debut in Anaheim on Aug. 22, 2006.
“When I first got called up, we had just lost five games to the Yankees,” said Pedroia. “I remember walking in there and I was the happiest kid on the planet. I remember getting in there and it was not a good environment. Everyone was upset. They had just got beat bad.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, I can’t wait to play tonight. We’re going to turn this thing around.’ ”
That didn’t happen. Pedroia went 1 for 3 in his debut, but hit just .191/.258/.303 while the Sox went 17-21 en route to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002. However, the impression he made proved unforgettable.
Ferreira encountered him at Fenway late in that season. A “how’s it going” offered in passing provoked a typically sharp response.
“He said, ‘Really, Raquel? How the [expletive] do you think it’s going? I’m batting .180 right now. I’d say it’s not going too good!’ ” said Ferreira. “I was just like, ‘All right, you little [expletive].’ ”
In that attitude, the Sox saw something significant.
The following year, Pedroia carried a .172 average and .518 OPS on May 1, but he wasn’t resigned to his struggles. He was one of the few people whose faith in his abilities remained unbowed, and he was convinced it was just a matter of time until he turbocharged his career and his team.
“He kept telling you guys, ‘I will hit, I will hit.’ And we’re like, ‘It doesn’t look right,’ ” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora, Pedroia’s teammate from 2006-08.
“But he kept doing things baseball-wise to contribute, to win games. He played outstanding defense while he was struggling, and that was very important for us.
“For him to go through what he did, he knew and [GM Theo Epstein] knew that he was going to hit. I don’t know if Tito at one point believed he was going to hit, but he was a winning player from the get-go. He played with the same intensity when he was hitting .140 or .340, and that was amazing. That was cool to see.”
From May 3 through the end of 2007, he hit .335 with an .861 OPS, winning Rookie of the Year honors and, more significantly, a championship. The next year, he claimed the AL MVP award while nearly leading the Red Sox back to the World Series.
“It was constant amazement about how he continued to improve and get better,” said former Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills. “He probably worked harder once he achieved all those things.”
Pedroia added to his achievements by being the best all-around player on the 2013 World Series winners. And even when unable to play, he contributed to another title in 2018 as a behind-the-scenes leader.
Those contributions will be recognized at Fenway on Friday, yet the celebration will be about something more. Pedroia will be remembered as a player who seemed like he got out of bed every morning and went straight to the park in full uniform, then went to sleep at night covered in dirt in the same attire. A player who so obviously invested everything he had into every moment at the ballpark, and whose contributions to a championship culture were both unique and enduring.
“Extraordinary,” Claus said of Pedroia’s impact. “Guys looked at him with awe, like, ‘How is this guy doing that?’ He impacted the game from the moment he got to the ballpark to the moment he left, and he literally wouldn’t let anyone take time off. That was right up to the end. ‘If you’re not here to help us win, what are you doing?’
“He’s the epitome of competing. He stands for winning, period. That was it. He shows up and he’s an angry little [expletive] who just brought it every single day. He just brought it, man.”