I’ll remember Kevin Youkilis like many other suburban baseball fanatics, as one of a handful of great Jewish athletes. The Don, Sandy Koufax, began a string of baseball players of the Jewish faith that allowed fans of the similar religion to associate with professional athletes. There was Hank Greenberg, and more recently Shawn Green.
Whenever Youk’s name is mentioned, somebody always drops a snide remark about Jews, but the beauty of Kevin Youkilis is that when I think about him, my first thought isn’t about his Judaism. It’s about how hard he played and what he represented to a Red Sox generation that relied on identity. He was in his first year when the Sox won their first World Series in 2004, and he didn’t have a huge impact, the same in 2005. In 2006, when finally given the opportunity to take more than 400 at bats, he showed what the hype was about. He had 100 runs, a career high, and 159 hits. In the Sox 2007 championship run, he contributed a similar offensive effort but also won a gold glove. In 2008, he scored 91 runs, got 168 hits, 29 home runs and 115 RBI, it was his finest season.
However for Youk, contributions weren’t measured by stat lines. The 2004 Sox bought into Kevin Millar and the “Cowboy Up” movement that enchanted spectators with goofy dance videos and old-school American music. That year the team was so unique, so cohesive in it’s diversity that you just knew after one year a shift in identity would be needed, then came Youk. His frustrated face always ready to shout in defense of a teammate. His intensity seeping through his fingers as he grasped the bat so tightly that he was the hardest out in baseball at one point. He’d fight off pitches that he shouldn’t have had a chance at, and out of pure angst and anxiety the pitched would walk Youk. He was the Sox tough guy, and the whole team identified with his love and passion for baseball.
I remember going to a Tigers-Sox game at Fenway where Youkilis charged the mound against Rick Porcello. He threw his helmet at him, and furiously ran at the pitcher. He didn’t beat Porcello down while the crowd goaded him on or some other form of a gladiator-like bashing. Instead, it was a quick tussle that ended as fast as it began, but everybody in the park knew Youk needed to charge, and that’s what Kevin Youkilis did. Whether the team needed a runner on base or someone to strong-arm a tougher team, Kevin Youkilis did whatever the Red Sox needed him to do, and that’s all you can ask from a baseball player.