BOSTON -- With the way 2011 ended and 2012 began for the Red Sox, fans seemed to long for changes in and around the club. Some were made, most notably among the management ranks, but it didn’t seem to be enough. And when rookie Will Middlebrooks vastly outhit Kevin Youkilis, making a trade of the latter very logical, it seemed as if many fans were itching to make it happen before fully considering the ramifications beyond making room for Middlebrooks.
With the emotions on display Sunday at Fenway Park, it was apparent it will take some getting used to not having No. 20 and his trademark goatee on the field. A trade made baseball sense, but Youkilis is one of the key figures in the last decade of Red Sox baseball, and a longtime fan favorite. Only he and David Ortiz remained from the 2004 team that altered the course of the franchise.
Having Youkilis on the brink of departure had fans lining up to shower him with love Sunday. Between lines near the end of the national anthem, a fan yelled very loudly, “We love ya, Youk!” And when the veteran third baseman stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second, the ovation grew steadily until much of Fenway was standing in appreciation.
Fans might applaud the trade of Youkilis to the Chicago White Sox for the betterment of the 2012 edition, but they wanted Youkilis to know how much he has been appreciated. And it was hard for anyone not to join in on the adoration after what occurred in the seventh inning.
Manager Bobby Valentine had been informed by general manager Ben Cherington that a “situation was pending,” so Youkilis would have to be removed from the game. After Youkilis left the dugout for his at-bat in the seventh, Valentine told Youkilis' teammates the news.
With a runner on first and two outs, Youkilis hit a fly ball toward the gap in front of the Red Sox bullpen. Although Atlanta center fielder Michael Bourn and right fielder Jason Heyward had a miscommunication that probably allowed the ball to fall in, that is a mere footnote. What was notable was the fact that Youkilis never stopped running, chugging hard toward second as the ball fell in and then racing safely into third base in a cloud of dust.
Youkilis was never one to pop up quickly following a slide. In this case, he climbed to his knees and then his feet, brushed himself off and began to take in a roar from the sellout crowd. By the time Youkilis looked up, Nick Punto was crossing the first-base line and on his way to run for Youkilis. The Sox had to take every precaution to get him out while still healthy so that the trade could go through.
To the fans it meant so much more, and they did not let the moment pass without letting loose.
“It was pretty cool. It doesn't surprise me with these fans, they have great instincts,” Punto said. “They showed it there.”
Punto gave Youkilis a hug, which he said was not planned, but a natural occurrence when the emotion started to spill all around Fenway.
"I know how much blood, sweat and tears he has poured into this organization," said Punto, who has been friends with Youkilis for years. "That just happened. It was a pretty cool moment for me, too."
The moment brought Red Sox players pouring from the dugout to greet Youkilis before he hit the top step.
Dustin Pedroia, for so long linked to Youkilis as the top gamers on the club, the two most likely to finish a game covered in dirt, was the first to greet Youkilis after Punto’s hug. He said that he told Youkilis he loved him, gave him a hug of his own and then took in the rest of the special moment.
“It meant a lot to him. It meant a lot to us,” he said. “The fans know how hard he played for the Red Sox. He did it first class.
"He pushes me every day, and I want to go out and play hard every day just like he does. You know, he's always out there doing his best to try to help us win. I appreciate him so much for that."
"It brought a tear to my eye," Cody Ross said. "To see him run off and tip his hat and have tears in his eyes. It was just a special time. I know how much he means to this city. Two World Series here. Played his heart and soul out every day. Just a great teammate. I'm going to miss him."
After a curtain call at the strong urging of Valentine, Youkilis waved once more to the crowd before disappearing down the tunnel to the clubhouse for the last time as a member of the Red Sox.
I said, 'OK, we'll do it the right way,'" Valentine said of his reaction to Cherington's words. "Someone was looking down because that was the perfect way to end it."
It was all Valentine could ask for after learning of Youkilis’s imminent departure and simply hoping that there could be one last moment. Although Valentine and Youkilis had some public differences and the manager has only been in Boston for a few months, Valentine was able to reflect on the reception.
“The fans here get it,” he said.
Pedroia added that he is looking forward to facing Youkilis in the first home series after the All-Star break when the White Sox come to town for a four-game series. Youkilis can expect another outpouring of affection.
Sunday was Family Day at Fenway Park, which allows players, coaches and team personnel to bring their families onto the field for a picnic and other activities after the game. The timing is hard to ignore, for the Red Sox had just said goodbye to one of their own family members. And the Fenway fans had their opportunity to do so as well.