Enter the Youk
Erstwhile Red Sox folk hero fitting in quickly with his new first-place team
CHICAGO -- Befitting his status, the newest member of the White Sox, Kevin Youkilis, has the veteran's locker in the spacious home clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field.
The 33-year-old Youkilis is tucked away on the back left wall near the TV and the community couch. Omar Vizquel decamped there the past couple years. Jermaine Dye before him and Sandy Alomar Jr. before that. Kosuke Fukudome, practically invisible in his short tenure with the Sox, had the locker before getting released.
It's a good place to avoid the media when they're surrounding Paul Konerko's locker across the room. It's a good place to get some mental reps in before a hot night's work.
Youkilis was studying spray charts in his chair a few hours before Friday's game when a reporter approached.
"You got a minute?"
He looked slightly disappointed, but professional.
"What have you got?" he said.
Some small talk about Ohio, some professional chit-chat about his new situation and his instant success. Most Boston talk was quickly squelched, because, "that's the past." Youkilis can talk baseball with the best of them, but he's not going to be the loquacious Konerko quote. He's hoping to stay under the radar and just play baseball.
The erstwhile Red Sox folk hero has fit in quickly with his new first-place team, where he's just another piece to a potential playoff team -- not the repository for every fan's idea of what a baseball player should be like.
He's already popular on the South Side. Game-winning RBIs help the transition. So does near-flawless defense at third base. Cries of "Youuukkk!" are becoming commonplace. The Youkilis jerseys and T-shirts are for sale. Every outlet wants an interview.
Pretty soon, the question will be: Can the Sox sign him to an extension? That's not a joke.
After a sluggish 42 games in Boston -- a stretch that ended triumphantly with a triple and a curtain call -- Youkilis is hitting .309 with 11 RBIs in 11 games (6-for-11 with runners in scoring position) with the White Sox. His at-bats are lengthy and the results are, well, normal.
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Youkilis' hot start continued Friday night in the Sox's 4-2 win over Toronto. His RBI single capped off the Sox's three-run fifth. Youkilis had a go-ahead solo homer in the Sox's 2-1 win over Texas on Thursday, a day after a game-winning hit in the 10th and a swarming celebration from his new teammates.
So what does manager Robin Ventura like more, the defense or the situational hitting?
"I like both," he said. "I like both."
Before the former All-Star came in a fall-in-his-lap trade for general manager Kenny Williams, third base was a morass for the White Sox. Brent Morel was bad, and then injured, Orlando Hudson gave it his best, which wasn't good enough for a team with playoff dreams. Enter the Youk.
"It's all about the work environment here and the conditions you're in," Youkilis said of his quick start after a trying few months in Boston. "The staff is very laid-back. All we do is get our work done, go out and play and not try to do anything like re-invent the game. That's the key. when you keep it simple, that's when you start to have success. When you start trying to think too much, that's when you start to have ruts."
When he says "work environment" and "re-invent the game," he didn't say Boston or Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, who criticized him early, but ... well, I guess my interpretation of that quote is why Youkilis said this, also with a friendly smile:
"I got nothing to say about Boston. It's all about Chicago now. Everything that happened there is in the past, and it was great run and a great time there. It's time, as they say in baseball, to turn the page."
But everything he does here will be inevitably compared to his Boston career, where he won two World Series. Coming from Fenway Park, where the expectations and attention are intense, and probably rightfully so, Youkilis is thriving early in a less intense atmosphere.
He joined the team on the road and was surprised by the dearth of traveling media. When he got to Chicago, he told reporters, "I didn't realize 'til now that you're second fiddle to the Cubs so there's not as much news. I kind of knew it but I figured this team's in first place, their team's in last place, I thought we'd get a lot more publicity."
He wasn't complaining. He's seen more media attention since those quotes, but "nothing abnormal."
"It's good to have the upper hand on the media," he said, smiling. "For players sometimes it can get a little much. All we want to do is come here and play baseball. It's a part of the gig, having to answer questions and do all the media stuff. But the fun is getting out there on the diamond and getting dirty every night and winning ballgames."
Put that last sentence into an Alabama twang, and he sounds like Jake Peavy. Baseball Cliché 101. So yeah, Youkilis has fit in well. And thus far, his transition has followed conventional wisdom. Most figured he would play like he has something to prove after getting benched for a rookie to end his ballyhooed Boston tenure. He had that grinder rep down pat.
So far, all true.
"Youk's just in a spot where he's in a new situation and getting a chance to play," Ventura said. "Again, he's done this in the past. He's performed, he's played in a lot of different situations and big games so it's nothing new to see him doing it. It's just different because he's doing it in our uniform."
But Youkilis is also getting older. Last year he played through injuries, including a sports hernia, which he underwent offseason surgery to fix. He missed almost three weeks this year with a back injury. Youkilis doesn't get the benefit of the doubt, body-wise.
"I think everyone wondered if he's healthy," Gordon Beckham said. "I think he's shown that he's plenty healthy. He's not surprising me or anyone in here."
"As long as he's healthy, which he is, he's doing to do good things," Konerko said. "Things went a little sideways in Boston for whatever reason, I don't even know. We're just happy to have him."
About those health worries...
"Don't believe everything you read about that, that I was 'unhealthy,'" Youkilis said. "There are a lot of things that get put out there. I had a back issue and I think they took care of me in a good way, with (clinical consultant) Dan Dyrek up there, but I also thought it was a lot longer than I needed.
"But the team also looks out to make sure you're 100 percent healthy. So I felt I played longer than I should've at the minor league level rehab assignment. In the end, I might be thankful, because I am healthy and I'm feeling good."
With the Sox nursing a small lead in the AL Central, and his fame preceding him in a town ga-ga over his former boss Theo Epstein, Youkilis' locker will become a popular place if things keep going this way.
"It's good to have people come to your locker," he said. "Because it usually means you did something good."