Commentary

Youk knew days were numbered

But his departure came a season too soon as Red Sox try to fill their voids

Updated: July 15, 2012, 7:55 PM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

Kevin Youkilis returns to Fenway Park on Monday as a visitor.

He has known this city and its fans for his entire professional career and he helped deliver a pair of World Series titles to Boston, including the historic 2004 championship that snapped an agonizing 86-year drought.

Youkilis became a member of the Chicago White Sox on June 24 when Red Sox GM Ben Cherington traded the veteran third baseman. Youkilis' departure needed to happen. But it wouldn't have if Terry Francona was still managing in Boston.

Plain and simple: Youkilis and Bobby Valentine did not get along.

[+] EnlargeYoukillis-Francona
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireIf Terry Francona was still managing in Boston, would Kevin Youkilis still be on the Red Sox?

It became apparent that in order for everyone to be happy, Youkilis needed to play somewhere else. Unfortunately this divorce, at least for the remainder of this season, is going to haunt Valentine and the Red Sox.

Youkilis' versatility and offensive threat will be missed, especially if the Red Sox continue to rack up injuries.

A season ago, Youkilis told ESPNBoston.com that he knew his time with the Red Sox would eventually come to an end. He thought, however, that time would come after his contract expired following the 2012 season because it was possible the Red Sox would not pick up the club option for 2013 -- with third baseman Will Middlebrooks emerging fast.

"I don't know what their plans are past [2013] 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."

That someone became Middlebrooks, and his rookie contributions made it easier on Cherington to trade Youkilis.

Ever since he was promoted to Boston and made his big league debut when Youkilis was sidelined with a back strain in early May, Middlebrooks has produced both offensively and defensively. He has sparked the Red Sox and added a youthful charge in the lineup.

While there was clearly a feud between Youkilis and Valentine, it did not spill over and affect the relationship between Youkilis and Middlebrooks. Both players handled the situation like professionals, and Youkilis' guidance helped the transition go smoothly. Even though Middlebrooks has said he's not feeling any extra pressure now that he is the guy at third base, in this market there are always pressures to perform at the highest level. Youkilis experienced that for 8 seasons in Boston.

Now it's Middlebrooks' turn.

Middlebrooks is definitely his own player and has all the abilities to help the Red Sox become perennial winners again -- just like Youkilis once did. The veteran spoke last summer about the rookie's future in Boston, and Youkilis had already come to grips with the fact that someday Middlebrooks would replace him.

"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," Youkilis said last summer. "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."

Given the circumstances this season in Boston, Youkilis needed a change of scenery and he has found baseball's fountain of youth in Chicago. In his first 15 games with the White Sox, he's posted a .316 average with three home runs and 15 RBIs. The White Sox are 10-5 with Youkilis in the lineup.

Youkilis returns to Fenway Park on Monday as a member of the opposing team. The ovation he'll receive from the fans should be thunderous, and no doubt his desire to beat the Red Sox will be significant.

In an open letter to Boston fans released prior to the series, Youkilis passionately expressed his emotions about his tenure in Boston and his gratefulness to the Red Sox and fans. He thanked his teammates and thanked former manager Terry Francona.

When he returns to Fenway Park on Monday, Youkilis' presence will be felt. Change was inevitable and his time in Boston would have run out eventually. But this season was too soon. If the Red Sox earn a postseason berth for the first time since 2009, his impact will be missed.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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