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Why New England Loves Kevin Youkilis
by Kevin Clouther

On the acerbic and obsessive Red Sox forum, Sons of Sam Horn, the following analogy was posted prior to the most recent postseason:
Kevin Youkilis: Red Sox as Paul O'Neill: Yankees

For those unfamiliar with the names, Kevin Youkilis is the hirsute first baseman for the Red Sox, a player renowned for his emotive demeanor—one poster compared him to "King Hippo from [Mike Tyson's] Punch Out[!!]"—and ability to get on base.

Paul O'Neill was a right fielder for the Yankees in the nineties, a player remembered for his tantrums and contributions to four World Series. In New England—and much of the world outside New York—-O'Neill is additionally remembered as melodramatic, immature, and narcissistic. If you ask a bar full of sad people in Somerville, Mass. what Yankee they'd most like to punch, Paul O'Neill might get a number of votes, even though he hasn't played since 2001. Kevin Youkilis, New England loves.

It's surely provincialism that makes a fan base love its guy and hate the other team's guy. Impossible as it might be to imagine, New England would have made room in their hearts for the cooler-crashing O'Neill were he hitting .359 for the Red Sox, as he did one year for the Yankees. But would New England have been so forgiving of his histrionics, would the fans have so readily converted his whininess to passion, been so eager to christen a pain-in-the-ass a warrior?

In Kevin Youkilis, many have their answer, which is of course (of course). But I suspect something more complicated and paradoxical is happening.

The collapse of the Red Sox sizeable lead in 2007 was, in the words of Flannery O'Connor, both surprising and inevitable. No amount of curse exorcising or regime change can remove the fear, resignation, and self-pity New England fans have developed. Never mind that the Red Sox rebounded to win the division for the first time since 1995, that the collapse wasn't a collapse, so much as a late push by the Yankees, and that the Sox would go on to win the World Series. Waiting for the worst is famously part of the ethos of the Red Sox fan; indeed, one might posit the following analogy:

Paranoia: Red Sox as Entitlement: Yankees
In these terms, Paul O'Neill made perfect sense. Who throws bigger fits than the bully? The bully expects to get your milk money, not a called third strike. But Youkilis isn't a bully. He isn't good enough. In 2007 he hit .288, which is respectable. His power numbers weren't bad: 16 home runs, 83 runs batted in. His on base percentage was .390. That's pretty good, though not nearly as good as the OBP of his teammate David Ortiz, who led the American League this year. Another teammate, Manny Ramirez, led the league in OBP three of the past five seasons.

What's more, the new Red Sox ownership regime has little patience for the salad days of self-flagellation or for any symbolism that would go with it. The new regime modernized the antique ballpark, dubbed the Yankees "The Evil Empire," and embraced the once cultish sabermatricians with their emphasis on OBP. Enter Kevin Youkilis, who is good at walking (fifteenth in the American League) and getting hit by pitches (sixth in the league). Indeed, Youkilis's greatest talent might be standing before a pitcher and not swinging at balls, which isn't putting him on any kids' posters.

Michael Lewis's Moneyball is one of the rare books that people who don't usually read books both read and apply to their lives—more precisely, the way they watch baseball. The star of the book is Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, but the Red Sox have arguably been the most successful franchise in implementing many of Beane's values in the book: high OBP, walking, taking pitches. Unsurprisingly, Beane was a long-time fan of Youkilis, trying repeatedly to acquire him. Famously, Moneyball refers to him as the "Greek God of Walks," which is a pretty good nickname, though it would be better were he Greek.

Ironically, fans also like Youkilis for the reasons Moneyball tells us not to like a player: because he's intense, tough, a "grinder," and, less explicitly, white. Unquantifiable reasons at best, embarrassing ones at worst. These are the same reasons fans loved Trot Nixon long after he ceased being an above-average right fielder for the Red Sox, and this is where it gets interesting. Statistics are both exhaustive and ubiquitous in baseball. They tell you what a player hits, for instance, with runners in scoring position, and the average fan—to his or her credit—is likely to be moved by this. But the average fan is just as likely to be moved by a remarkable throw from right field; indeed, if that remarkable throw is augmented by the occasional dive that knocks the player's chin into the ground causing obvious physical pain, can the fan be blamed—should he be blamed—for liking that player a little more, particularly when the left fielder—the one who led the league in OBP three of the past five seasons—routinely jumps too late, runs too slowly, reacts too indifferently?

Since the average fan is unlikely to watch all 162 games—approximately twenty full days of baseball—the fan will be influenced by the games he or she does see. So what does the fan see when he or she sees Kevin Youkilis at bat? There's the crouch, the way he drops into a chair that doesn't exist. The unapologetically bushy goatee, the kind worn most often by teenage boys flush with the ability to grow hair on their faces. There's the indignant glare he gives the umpire when a ball is called a third strike. Late in the season, he began throwing O'Neillesque tantrums, tossing—or not quite tossing—his helmet to reveal a milky, misshapen dome.

In the postseason, Youkilis was excellent: working pitch counts, hitting for average and power, and, with the exception of one uncharacteristically bad defensive game, playing a superior first base (after an errorless regular season, he won the Gold Glove). Sabermatricians will caution against small sample size, but his OBP in the American League Championship Series was .576. In the World Series, .417.

In the end, Youkilis is good statistically but not great. He's a likeable player is some regards, though not in all. Moneyball afforded him some notoriety, but the book cycles through many players and dwells more favorably on others. He hasn't distinguished himself off the field through his humanitarianism, easiness with the press, wardrobe, or humor. And yet. Something more is happening in New England.

Fans like screaming his name. Not his whole name, but the first syllable in an exaggerated crescendo that lingers on the vowels. Yooooouuuuuk. This happens on the road but especially at home and is perhaps compared best to the reaction Dallas Cowboys fans had for their fullback Daryl "Moose" Johnston in the nineties: Moooooooooose. It's inexplicable and idiotic. When I do it—and I usually don't but I have—I feel shame. But my peers seem to do this instinctively, something invariably pointed out during national broadcasts. Would fans like Youkilis less were he named something you couldn't bellow, something really Greek like "Aristophanes"?

Then there's this: Youkilis makes $424,500. This is a tremendous amount of money but less than every team starter other than rookie Dustin Pedroia. When paired with his "workman"—a word as imprecise if not as sexually charged as "grinder"—demeanor, this relative pittance makes Youkilis more like one of us, a value I've never understood in athletes or politicians but the influence of which is undeniable. Youkilis is likely to approach fair market value in his next contract, as both his professional experience and the widening appreciation for statistical data should make him attractive. Will fans like Youkilis less when he's better compensated?

Perhaps best of all, the Red Sox picked him. The Red Sox sign several players each year through the draft and international markets. Far from a diamond in the rough, Youkilis was an accomplished college player, a two time All-American, who was widely scouted. His professional rise was chartable enough that he was twice the player of the year in Boston's farm system before arriving to the Major Leagues. But to many fans: we found him, we made him, we get credit for him. He's the only current starter who rose through Boston's farm system besides Pedroia and postseason hero Jacoby Ellsbury, both of whom fans are also beginning to love (high batting average, poorly compensated, tough, "white"), but whose names are obviously not fun to say. Would fans like Youkilis less were he signed as a free agent, the result of Cincinnati's farm system?

My hands aren't clean. I love Kevin Youkilis a little. I love Jonathan Papelbon—the Red Sox closer, the first man in team history to save thirty games in two seasons, the Louisianan who unironically shaved his head into a Mohawk and stares at each opposing batter like the guy is sleeping with his girlfriend or at least riding his motorcycle without asking—a lot. Jonathan Papelbon came up in the Red Sox system. He doesn't make a lot of money. He's intense and inexpensive, maybe not a "grinder," though fans invented the word "Papelboner" to describe the metaphorical priapism that occurs during his save situations. When my friend—a grown man working at a New York law firm—was choosing between a Youkilis and Papelbon jersey, I endorsed Youkilis, so I might keep Papelbon for myself.

It can be difficult to justify investing time, energy, and emotion in a game when you're ignoring literature, family, and culture. It can be hard to support a team chosen by geography, for players who change teams as often as annually. It can also be blissfully easy. Billy Beane has to justify his decisions, but fans don't. New England can love Kevin Youkilis instead of Manny Ramirez—or Haruki Murakami. New England can defend Youkilis with reason, but even the most logical argument will sit in a largely illogical sphere, and most of the defense will be illogical anyhow.

When New England is done loving Kevin Youkilis, it will love someone else, the benefactor of a new statistic or bias or vowel sound. Until then, fans will sound the old barbaric yawp over the grandstands. It doesn't make him Paul O'Neill. It doesn't make us monsters.

Kevin Clouther can't believe the Red Sox won the World Series again. His first novel is forthcoming from Algonquin Books. He teaches at Bridgewater College and lurks on the internet forum Sons of Sam Horn under the name "Pedro's Complaint."

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