Dustin Pedroia is my favorite baseball player.
I suppose, now though, I should say Dustin Pedroia was my favorite baseball player. Yesterday the man who dubbed himself “Laser Show” called it a career.
Pedey appeared in just nine games in the past three season as his failing knees wrecked comeback attempt after comeback attempt. It proved to be an ignominious end for one of the greatest and most-beloved Red Sox players of all-time. It is sad that Pedroia’s career end this way, but it is not surprising. As the line from Cocktail goes, “everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.” It is impossible to imagine Dustin Pedroia walking away from the game gracefully, leaving at the top of his powers like Ted Williams did. “Graceful” is not a word that comes to mind when thinking about the way Dustin Pedroia played. He played recklessly and with wild abandon. He played angry and defiant. He played with more swagger than his 5’7 frame could contain. He did not play gracefully.
He also played with joy. It isn’t easy find someone who can play with joy and anger at the same time. Michael Jordan did it and I think Steph Curry manages it at times. That rare combination is why writers of a certain generation lionized Pete Rose for so long. Pedro pitched with joy and anger, but anger was always dominant when he was on the hill. There was an angry edge to Big Papi’s game at times, but his joy overwhelmed that side of him. Mookie Betts plays with such grace and joy that it is almost impossible to see the scorching fire beneath it. In Pedroia, anger and joy lived in perfect harmony. He played like he wanted to destroy you and he played like a kid who just walked through the gates of Disney World.
Because he played that way and because he was small and white and looked like he should be teaching a gym class in an Ohio middle school, he was lionized for his hustle, for his grit, for his intangibles and leadership and heart. At Over the Monster, Matt Collins has a great explanation of how these qualities were both real and still probably a bit overwrought in the discussion.
Yes, the intangibles helped, but it feels like a disservice to him as an athlete to boil him down to that and that alone. He could do things physically at second base that I’ve never seen anyone do. He had a swing that could get power out of that small frame. That wasn’t intangibles. That was being bananas good at baseball. The dude could ball…For a certain generation of fan, Dustin Pedroia was the Red Sox
A tribute to one of the all-time greats in the history of the franchise.
By Matt_Collins @MattRyCollins Feb 1, 2021, 2:49pm EST
Pedroia won his 2008 MVP Award largely on the strength of “intangibles.” It was deserved- he led the American League in rWAR, hits, runs and doubles that season and was the best defensive second baseman in the league by a mile (only Chase Utley in the NL really compared to peak Pedey with the glove)- the argument for him always came back to his leadership, his hustle and how much his teammates looked to him. The Red Sox were defending champions that season and one of the best teams in the American League, winning 95 games and making to the ALCS, but they were also a team in crisis. Manny Ramirez sulked over his contract negotiations and completely quit on the team. David Oritz was at his absolute nadir coming off knee and wrist injuries and 2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell was clearly entering the twilight of his career. Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis carried that team to within one game of the World Series. Youk was incredible at the plate and a stellar first baseman, but Pedroia was Red Sox that year. Youk earned just two first-place MVP votes despite a rWAR just 0.2 behind Pedroia. Pedey got sixteen first-place votes and the award. Such was the power of all the other things Pedroia brought to the table.
I doubt anyone ever wrote about Pedroia without mentioning his diminutive size or his hustle on the field, but for those who really loved watching him play, those were not the main attraction. Sure, I am a small guy and I love seeing small guys who can rake and gun down guys and first and dominate on the field. Pedroia gave you that. But this guy wasn’t David F-ing Eckstein. Pedey was a star. He had otherworldly talent. It was just not in the most obvious qualities, the ones that we are used to finding in exceptional ballplayers. His swing was a testament to that. Have you ever wondered why David Ortiz or Albert Pujols didn’t start their batting stance standing straight up then lunged forward with their entire body, launching themselves and the bat at the ball? Try imitating Pedey’s swing and it will be obvious. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
You fell down didn’t you?
Dustin Pedroia had the kind of balance you only see in skiers and X-Games athletes. It is the only way he could possibly swing like. Even if Mike Trout could take a hack with Pedey’s mechanics and manage not to fall over onto plate, I seriously doubt he could do it and get his hands inside quick enough to turn on a fastball. That is something only Pedey could do. I hope Trout tries though, because a guy bigger than 170 lbs managing that kind of swing might hit the ball 700 feet. Pedey needed that cut to get it to go 400.
More than anything else, though, Pedey had baseball instincts the likes of which we have only seen a few times in recent history. He once told David Ortiz had fix his swing. David. Ortiz. A guy who hit 541 home runs in the show. He listened to Pedey. And IT WORKED!. He once helped David Price, a Cy Young winner, with his mechanics and that was in October 2018, just before Price pitched his way into the World Series MVP conversation. Pedroia was as quick getting to the ball as one who ever played the keystone, not because he was the fastest, but because he reacted instantly to every batted ball that came his way. He stole twenty or more bases four times his career, and 138 bases overall, all because he could read pitchers perfectly. He was caught just 46 times. He knew when to run. He knew when a young pitcher was going to try to beat him inside (veterans knew better). He was the master of positioning himself in the field and got to balls he no business fielding. He understood the game the way other players have.
These gifts made him a star, but it was hard to ignore the signs that this was going to end badly. In 2010, he missed the end of the season after breaking his foot with a batted ball. He had a wrist issue that hampered his production at the plate in 2012, but he gutted out solid batting numbers anyway. It seemed like he was always hurt, but he played well through the pain and bounced back to superstar levels when he was fully healthy. Injuries hampered him again in 2014, but once again, he bounced back and at in 2016, at age 32, he hit .318/.376/.449 and led the Red Sox to 93 wins and the AL East title. He will have interesting Hall of Fame case, one that is merited by a high peak, multiple awards and championships but held back by his lack of longevity.
It is easy to brood on how things might have ended differently if Manny Machado had not spiked him in 2017. But that way lies madness. Pedroia played the way he played and he played the most dangerous position in the game (apart from catcher, of course) and that made the way his career ended something of an inevitability. Maybe if that slide doesn’t happen, Pedey is on the field for the Red Sox incredible 2018 World Series run, but I doubt it. Time wasn’t on his side by 2017 and as wonderful as a last ride into the sunset would have been, Dustin Pedroia was never going to know when to quit. It was going to end badly, otherwise, it wouldn’t end at all.
There is a poetic nature to Manny Machado being the one to end Dustin Pedroia’s career. Machado is so many things that Pedroia is not. He is gifted in all the obvious ways a superstar player is expected to be gifted. He makes insane plays in the field and he makes ordinary plays look like they take no effort at all. He crushes moonshot home runs with a sweet, easy swing- no diving at the ball needed. He doesn’t hustle though. It’s not his thing. He doesn’t have that fire that Pedroia had and he doesn’t look like he is having fun like Pedey did. He is an incredible player and he carries himself with swagger, to be sure, but not the swagger of a man who would tell a reporter to have kids so he could tell them he saw him play. He is not Dustin Pedroia in all the ways that make Dustin Pedroia my favorite player.
I will miss Pedey. I have already missed him. I missed him down the stretch in 2018 when they had to suffer through Eduardo Nunez and Ian Kinsler in his place. I missed him this past season, when there were too few reasons to watch the Red Sox. Pedroia was worth watching every time. He was the laser show. I will miss that show.