Living the High Life

Oct. 20, 2008
Oct. 20, 2008

Table of Contents
Oct. 20, 2008


Living the High Life

He's the latest little man to make it big. But don't call Dustin Pedroia scrappy

NOBODY WANTS totalk about it out loud. Oh, sure, speaking strictly on background and not forattribution, baseball insiders are willing to fill my notebook with educatedguesses and opinions, to let loose like Holbrook in the parking garage. But asksomeone to go on the record about an issue this sensitive, and you can forgetabout it. Nobody wanted to tell me how tall Boston second baseman DustinPedroia really is.

This is an article from the Oct. 20, 2008 issue

He's not 5'9".We can start there. The Red Sox officially list Pedroia at 5'9", but he'sprobably not 5'8" or 5'7" either. When one of my anonymous sourcessuggested that Pedroia is shorter than the famously diminutive Fred Patek—whoat 5'5" is the shortest man to play everyday baseball in the last 40 or soyears—I thought the source was getting a bit carried away. But Peep Throat waspretty insistent, saying, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you howshort."

As a lifelongshort guy myself, I wish the Red Sox and everyone else would celebratePedroia's proportions, and not just because of his 6-for-11, two-home-runoutburst in the first three games of the ALCS (page 38). He's a powerfuloffensive player, an action-figure idol for all those kids who hear in classthat they could play handball against the curb and must look up to look down.This year Pedroia hit .326, cracked 17 homers, stole 20 bases while gettingcaught once, and scored a league-leading 118 runs. He was the AL's Rookie ofthe Year last year, and there's a good chance he'll be this season's MVP.

But this issue, asmost things are, is bigger than Pedroia. Baseball, like O. Henry, can tell ashort story. In the 1970s it had Patek, of course, as well as Joe Morgan(5'7") with his famous elbow flap, Larvell (Sugar Bear) Blanks (5'8"),Glenn Hubbard (5'7") and Walt (No Neck) Williams, who, to be fair, wouldhave been two or three inches taller than his listed 5'6" had it not beenfor the aforementioned lack of neck. And before them it had Scooter Rizzuto andPee Wee Reese. The great thing about those players was that they did not hidefrom their lack of height. They embraced it. "I never saw my size as adisadvantage," says Hall of Famer Morgan, probably the greatest shortplayer in history. "It was the opposite. I thought it made peopleunderestimate me."

Baseball peoplehave not exactly underestimated Pedroia—he was, after all, a second-round pickin 2004 who signed for more than a half-million dollars, and he played in only270 minor league games before getting called up for good—but they certainlymade assumptions about him. When you're small, you can be only one kind ofplayer—scrappy—and the label is hard to shake. "He's a little scrappydude," Rays statuesque 6'4" starter James Shields told the St.Petersburg Times before the ALCS. "He's a little guy, but he's got a bigheart."

Scrappy is a greatand knotty baseball word that goes back to the late 19th century. It might haveoriginated with the 1880s ballplayer John (Scrappy) Carroll. Not much is knownabout Scrappy Carroll, except that he was listed at 5'7" and hit .171 inhis brief career. After him, small players who mostly could not hit wouldforever be called scrappy. Billy Martin was the essence of scrappy, hitting.257 for his career and punching out anyone who mentioned it. Diamondbacksshortstop David Eckstein (5'6") hits for a better average than mostscrappers (.284), but he has the rest of the act down—low strikeouts, no power,lots of sacrifice bunts and on every grounder he fields, he looks as if he'llthrow his arm out trying to get the ball to first. Mark Lemke (5'9") was asecond baseman for the Braves who gained brief fame for hitting .417 with threetriples in his first World Series, in 1991. But being scrappy, Lemke hit .238with zero triples or homers in his other three Series.

The thing is,Pedroia is no more scrappy than he is 5'9". He led the majors in hits (213)and doubles (54). To focus on Pedroia's hustle, his will, his intensity, hispluck, his feistiness, his grit, his moxie, his fighting spirit—in short, hispresumed scrappiness—is to miss the point. "He plays like he's FrankHoward," says Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who is also not 5'9"and is the closest thing to a scrappy baseball executive. "Look, it isn'tabout trying harder," Moore explains. "People at the local Wal-Martwill come out and have a desire to play. You have to have great ability to playthis game. Dustin has great ability."

In fact, Pedroiaseems to have created his own archetype, the allegedly scrappy guy who plays asif he's 6'7". For a while now there has been a war raging between baseballmen who talk about the value of the scrapper ("Eckstein has oneextraordinary tool—his brain," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia) andstatistical analysts who point out inconvenient numbers (Eckstein has alifetime .361 slugging percentage, which is dreadful). Pedroia bridges the gapbetween the scrappers and the sluggers. He does all those things managers,executives and fans love—competes hard every day, gives you good at bats, getsthe uniform dirty, comes through in the clutch and plays with that arrogancethat scouts admire. He also does a lot of things that show up in the stats: Hegets on base, hits with some power, scores runs and so on. That pair of homeruns he hit in Game 2 against the Rays last Saturday? They equaled Eckstein'stotal for all of 2008.

So there is noneed to protect Pedroia, to nervously deflect the question or go off the recordwhen a guy like me—a guy who is not 5'9" and who has seen the top ofPedroia's head—asks about the man's height. Pedroia, who has been listed as5'9" going back to his days at Arizona State, is no more helpful. If youask how tall he is, he'll smile and say, "How tall do you think Iam?"

The correct answeris, he's as tall as he needs to be. And that's on the record.

Joe Posnanski isan special contributor and a columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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Pedroia has created his own archetype, the small guywho plays LIKE HE'S 6'7".