- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Red Sox veteran Kevin Youkilis will never change the way he plays the game.
The 32-year-old third baseman always plays hard and his consistent contributions have come to be expected around these parts.
Youkilis is at a point where his outlook on his career and future has changed and he's finally comfortable with both.
Since teammate Adrian Gonzalez is locked up as the club's first baseman until 2018, and there's a highly touted third base prospect in the organization, Will Middlebrooks, Youkilis doesn't know what his future holds in Boston.
His contract expires at the end of 2012 with a club option for 2013, and no matter if he re-signs with Boston or ends up playing for another team, Youkilis seems to be content with either scenario.
"I don't know what their plans are past  but I actually think it would be cool, if I don't play here, that there's going to be another guy to enjoy the opportunities that I had," he said. "I've been thinking about that a lot. Probably for the first time in my life I haven't worried about if I had to go to another team and it doesn't bother me. I've had so many great things that have happened to me here and if I have to go at some point, it is what it is. The coolest thing is that somebody gets to come here and play."
And possibly become the next Kevin Youkilis?
"And that's cool," he said. "I think every player should have that attitude and I don't think guys should be bitter that somebody is going to take their job. It's a cool thing and somebody should get the experience of playing here and having fans cheer for them and enjoy it. I've had that luxury and I've had that for a long time. If it's next year or the year after that I'm not here and I'm playing somewhere else, it'll be something new in my life."
By no means is Youkilis giving up on Boston, the Red Sox or his teammates. He's proud of what he's already accomplished with this organization and certainly hopes for a lot more. He's also looking ahead and wonders what it would be like to play for his hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds.
"If I were to go anywhere, I would want to go to Cincinnati and play in front of my parents at home," Youkilis said. "I think it would be really cool for my dad and my mom, but especially for my dad, growing up in Cincinnati, that would be a real cool thing."
Red Sox fans should understand. Sox reliever Dan Wheeler is a native of Warwick, R.I., and when he signed with Boston last winter he said it was a childhood dream to play for the team he grew up rooting for. Former Sox outfielder Rocco Baldelli, of Cumberland, R.I., once said the same thing.
"If it wasn't Boston, I would want to play in Cincinnati just to say that I did it," Youkilis said. "I grew up rooting for them. I used to be bitter towards the Reds because they didn't draft me, but that bitterness is gone. It would be fun and it would be for my family."
Youkilis has been the model of consistency since he arrived in Boston and made his major league debut during the 2004 season. His versatility and his ability to play more than one position well above average make him valuable to the Sox. A natural third baseman by trade, he's played both corners in Boston and because of that it allowed general manager Theo Epstein to trade for Gonzalez and sign him to a long-term deal.
Now Youkilis, who won a Gold Glove as a first baseman in 2007, is back on the left side of the infield and playing well.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona recently described Youkilis as a football-type player because his body is bruised and banged up after every game.
"He grinds out at-bats and he's productive. I could go on and on," Francona said. "He's a kid who came through our system, so it's extra special to see these guys turn into some of the best players in the game. Knowing what you're going to get is huge and you know what you're going to get out of him every day. He wears it on his sleeve and you're going to see it, but he gives you an honest day's work every day."
There's no question he wears his emotions on his sleeve, but that's part of what makes him a good player.
"I just go out every day and grind out as much as I can," Youkilis said. "Through injuries, through nagging stuff, you've just got to keep grinding. You're going to have your struggles and your ups and downs, you've just got to keep going at it and working through it."
Youkilis epitomizes the meaning of blue-collar athlete. He's not a superstar, nor does he want to be.
"I kind of laugh at that, too, sometimes, because it's a double-edge sword. I don't want to be or care to be a superstar, live that life or be on billboards all around and stuff like that," he said. "At times, too, I think people around here just expect it. That's the one thing and when you come a long way, even from your rookie year and your second year and all of a sudden you come to a higher level of playing, people expect it around here."
He said he wants only to be consistent -- and consistently good.
"Every year I think I can do better," he said. "That mindset of staying humble and trying to improve, and I just never give in. I don't think that I'm better than I am, so I just try to improve every day."
Gonzalez has known Youkilis for a long time. They've played against each other in the minors and again at the big league level. They are similar when it comes to playing with consistency, and when Gonzalez was recently asked to explain the key to playing that way, his answer was simple.
"Never think you've made it," Gonzalez said. "Don't ever get comfortable. The day somebody thinks you're where you need to be and you stop working, that's when you start going downhill. [Youkilis] is a guy who is always working and always trying to get better. He always plays hard and gives it everything he has out there. He trusts in his abilities."
No one questions Youkilis' abilities. He's having a solid season, but because of the year the three batters in front of him in the order are having, it seems like he's flying under the radar.
"Flying under the radar is good in a lot of ways," he said. "I don't worry about that flying-under-the-radar stuff and the whole MVP thing, talking about this guy and that guy. I just laugh at it because without all of us doing stuff, no one is going to be the MVP."
For the better part of the season, especially now that we're in August, many people are talking about how all three should be in consideration for the MVP.
Gonzalez, however, is hitting .356 with 18 homers and 91 RBIs in his first season with the Sox, and Youkilis easily points to his new teammate as getting his MVP vote.
"Quite frankly, this guy at first, his numbers are just ridiculous," Youkilis said. "I know Jacoby and Pedey are having great years, but in my mind this guy is hitting 20 points higher than anybody in batting average and he's got 90-plus RBI. I'm not saying those other guys are not deserving to be in talks, but what [Gonzalez] is doing is MVP numbers. To me, what Gonzo has done with those number productions is insane. You don't see that a lot."
Youkilis is currently hitting .272 with 16 homers and 76 RBIs.
"I think I can be doing a lot better this year," Youkilis conceded. "I'm definitely not having the best year that I think I can have. I'm the hardest critic on myself, so the one thing that used to bother me [was] when people would say stuff. Now I don't care as much because I know I'm putting forth as much energy every night and playing as hard as I can. At the end of the day, that's all you can worry about -- whether or not you played hard."
Most players don't want to talk about career accomplishments while they're still playing. They say they'd rather wait until their career is over before they reflect on it.
Youkilis has been doing a lot of reflecting of late. He sat in the Red Sox dugout prior to batting practice Friday and talked about how fortunate he is to have accomplished so much in this game, including World Series titles in 2004 and 2007.
"It's been unbelievable just to be able to do that," Youkilis said.
In 2004 he was a rookie and played a total of 72 games and was on the postseason roster for the ALDS against the Angels and the World Series roster against the Cardinals. By the time 2007 arrived, Youkilis was making major contributions -- playing a total of 145 regular-season games and helping Boston to its second World Series in four seasons. He's a three-time All-Star and financially he's set for life.
"Everything now is added on bonuses in my life," he said. "The biggest thing I take out of it is everything is a blessing and it's great. At times you have to sit back and realize what you've done and be proud of what you've done. I take it for granted a lot of times and then after the season I reflect and think of how far I've come since I got drafted."
Boston selected him in the eighth round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft and he quickly became the organization's top prospect, the trailblazer for the current crop of homegrown talent.
"It's pretty wild to think it's been that long since I've been in pro ball," he said. "It seems like yesterday I was down in the minor leagues and it's been six years ... it's a great thing to be up here."
He was an example of a prospect who was given the opportunity to perform with the parent club and took full advantage of it.
"It's an interesting perspective when you sit back and think about all that stuff," he said. "I envisioned I could play at this level, but I never knew I could go to three All-Star games. This year I had to pinch myself again like, 'This is weird.' I think that's one of the things that makes me perform at this level. I never take it for granted and I keep going at it every day.
"I'm very proud of what I've done," he said. "I've come a long way with a lot of stuff in my life. I'm happier than I have been in years."
Francona once joked that if anyone had told him in 2004 that Youkilis would one day be the cleanup hitter in this lineup, he would have thought that person was on drugs. Youkilis doesn't argue with that point and recently told a story about when he saw former teammate Kevin Millar at this summer's All-Star Game.
"He said to me, 'It's amazing how you've turned into the player you've become.' Stuff like that means something to me. When a player that I used to watch every day and a teammate says something like that to me, it means a lot."
Youkilis' accomplishments and contributions seem to be taken for granted sometimes because of his consistency. He wants only to do his job and help the Red Sox win. He'll never change the way he plays the game, but he is no doubt a different player now than he was when he started in the majors.
"When people tell my dad, or other players say, 'We appreciate the way he plays the game,' that's all that matters to me," Youkilis said. "I don't have to be best friends with all my teammates and I don't have to be best friends with guys around the league, but as long as they can say, 'He plays as hard as he can every day and he gets his full potential out of life,' that's the key for me."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
17mAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com