The most enthusiastic participant in Red Sox infield practice is putting on a show. He leans to his right, leaps to his left. He snaps errant throws out of the air, occasionally adding a flourish with his glove. He beams for most of the dozen or so minutes he stands out there, his Red Sox beanie and Red Sox fleece and Red Sox hoodie belying the truth that he does not at the moment play for the Red Sox. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia, the heart and soul of a 108-win team to which he contributed exactly one hit, has assigned himself the completely superfluous role of intermediary between the first baseman and, a few feet away, a bucket into which he deposits baseballs.
“We [can] drop them in there,” says first baseman Mitch Moreland. Sometimes a coach will stand between the first baseman and the bucket. The job is not usually the provenance of sidelined 35-year-old All-Stars. So is this just Pedroia trying to stay involved? Moreland laughs. “He’s always involved.”
Pedroia looks baffled at the suggestion that it might make more sense for him to observe, rather than partake in, drills.
“I’m gonna be out there with the infielders,” he explains patiently, as he intently watches batting practice from the home dugout at Fenway Park. “That’s one of my big responsibilities.”
And so it is that when Pedroia is not getting treatment on the balky left knee that cost him this season, he announces to infield coach Carlos Febles, “I’m catching throws today!”
“I say, Do whatever you want to do!” says Febles. “You’re Dustin Pedroia.” He grins. “He’s driving the trainers crazy.”
It could be worse: When he broke his left foot in 2010, Pedroia insisted on taking grounders from his knees. With age has come maturity, or something close to it. This has been a strange six months for Pedroia. As his team has rolled to its best season ever, he has scuffled through his worst.
The saga began in September 2016, when he twisted his left knee on a play up the middle. He sat out one game two weeks later to get treatment on it, but he played all the way through Boston’s ALDS defeat that year before undergoing offseason arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus. A late slide by Orioles third baseman Manny Machado the next April did further damage, and Pedroia tweaked the knee again that May. (In a typically Pedroia move, he argued that he could stay in the game; manager John Farrell looked at the wet field and took him out.)
The joint continued to bother him until finally, in August, he hit the disabled list. He made it back for one game, then returned to the DL for three weeks. In October, after meeting with a series of specialists, he had a series of tiny holes drilled into his own cartilage and a slice of fresh cadaver cartilage implanted into his knee. Then he settled in for the monthslong rehab process, much of which kept him at the team’s facility in Fort Myers, Fla. He spent April texting videos of himself to manager Alex Cora and insisting he was ready to go. The team brought him back in May. He started three games. He hasn’t played since.
“I think you have to understand that sometimes you can’t will yourself through injuries,” he says. “You have to let the body heal. I didn’t think that I failed or anything like that. I just learned that sometimes you gotta have patience with things, which I’m not accustomed to.”
And so the man who delights in heckling teammates has had to do so remotely, as he rehabbed near his Arizona home for six weeks late in the season. He watched each pitch of the games he missed. He made a point of checking in with teammates every few days, either individually or by group text, and he—of course—regularly sent Cora video evidence that he should be activated.
When he returned to Boston, in early September, and admitted that his season was over, he committed to a new role, as something between a teammate and a coach. He sprays champagne around the clubhouse during celebrations like a player, but repositions infielders like an instructor. He met with Cora after David Price’s ALDS Game 2 disaster—three runs, five outs—to discuss what he had noticed about the lefty’s arm angle. He holds court during pregame hitters’ meetings. He doles out insults and insight in roughly equal measure.
“I just try to be the same guy whether I’m playing or not,” he says, but he knows that’s not quite true. It’s more that he tries to be the guy he is when he’s playing, even when he’s not.
Pedroia knows his reputation: He is the sparkplug who returns to the dugout after a line drive barking, “Ninety-eight [mph] coming in and 108 going out!” He is the leader who has been known to yell at his manager, approaching the mound, to leave the pitcher out there. He is the self-deprecating class clown who occasionally muses that he is ugly. But sometimes even comedians—especially comedians whose knees hurt—don’t feel like smiling. On those days, Pedroia complains to his wife, Kelli, and otherwise pretends all is well.
“If I walk in and I’m not myself, that could bring somebody else down,” he says. “I know from when I was younger, if something was wrong with Mike Lowell or [Jason Varitek] or whoever, if they had showed it, that would’ve brought me down.”
He views his career this way now, through the eyes of a veteran who owes something to the kids. Pedroia has been in Boston since he debuted in 2006; his longest-tenured teammate now is 26-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who played his first major league game in ’13. Pedroia has seen two generations of Red Sox come and go. At first he insists that he takes “the same” joy from watching their success as he does from authoring his own, but then he relents. He knows the feeling of seeing his nine-year-old son, Dylan, make a great play in Little League. This is similar. “I’m proud of them,” he says finally. “The way they play, the way they’re going about everything. … It’s special.”
In 15 minutes of conversation, it’s the first time he has used that pronoun to refer to the team, the first time he has acknowledged that he operates at a remove. “They understand what it takes to win,” he says. He pauses. “Now we just have to do it.”