Loud swing, louder mouth, even louder results: That's the story of Dustin Pedroia writ small. In a lineup of stars, nobody has played a larger role in the success of the Red Sox—or inspired better nicknames—than their 5'8" second baseman
This is an article from the Aug. 15, 2011 issue
Kelli and Dustin Pedroia and their cheeky two-year-old son, Dylan, live across the street from Fenway Park, and one reason why is clear from the view out their 13th-floor windows. Fenway in the quiet morn, before the sausages sizzle and the pilgrims parade in wearing the liturgical garments of Red Sox Nation, sits below them like an unopened Tiffany box, all neat, pristine corners and possibilities. The Pedroias can see the centerfield scoreboard and, through a crack in the asymmetrical grandstand, first base. They also can spy a large chain-link gate on wheels, which sometime in the middle of the day will be rolled open to Red Sox personnel for the symbolic start of the baseball business day.
Kelli will catch her little guy pulling the drapes aside and checking the status of the gate. Is it open? How about now? Now? "It's ridiculous," she says. "He paces until it's open. He's not calm until he's at the ballpark."
And at last when his surveillance is rewarded—the gates swinging open six, seven hours before the game is scheduled to begin—the little guy is happy, for he knows it is finally time to go out and play. He is out the door and across the street in no time.
Dustin Pedroia even takes Dylan with him sometimes.
Strip away the television ratings, the attendance figures, the merchandise sales, the gambling, the beer ads and the rest of the variables that measure the import of professional sports in our culture. Think about what's left: how we connect emotionally with the games. On that level baseball, perhaps not in popularity but in esteem, occupies a unique place. It remains for many children the portal to organized sports, and if they're lucky, when they grow up they never stop seeing baseball through 10-year-old eyes. It is an uncomplicated, unchanged kid's game that does not require tremendous height or weight.
To understand the game in this vein is to understand Dustin Pedroia. He embodies baseball the way our inner child imagines it. He swears he is 5'8" and 165 pounds. "If you shook hands with him," said Pat Murphy, his coach at Arizona State, "you would think you are shaking hands with a 10-year-old." He doesn't drink. He has no hobbies. He never shuts up. He has two nicknames that are printable and hates them both. (A third nickname, bestowed by his manager and comic foil, Terry [Tito] Francona, is not printable.) He swings as if his life depends on it.
Pedroia plays baseball with as much passion as his 2,640 ounces allow, while—with great unorthodoxy—chasing the footsteps of the greatest second basemen in history. He is the patron saint of the vertically, muscularly and follicularly challenged. "Let me tell you this," says his teammate David Ortiz, "I don't think there was a player born before him and I don't think there will be a player born after him that cares about baseball more than Dustin Pedroia. I would have to see it to believe it.
"Sometimes, I'll be honest with you, I get worried about it. He's got a kid. He's got a family. We travel so much and play so much, and he's at the ballpark so early. One time I got to the ballpark just to get there before him. And he was already there. I've stopped trying to beat him. There's no way in hell you can do it."
Says Kelli, "He's like a Little League kid. How great is it to do something that you love every day?"
Pedroia is so small, so unimposing, that when he reported to Class A Augusta in 2004, after Boston took him with their first pick, and 65th overall, of that summer's draft, the manager, Chad Epperson, left a harried voice mail with the Red Sox' front office, saying, "Are you sure you sent the right guy? This is our top pick?" When Pedroia took batting practice at Fenway after that draft, the Red Sox' players thought he was one of the owners' sons or the son of one of the PGA players who were visiting the ballpark that night. One player, Kevin Millar, told general manager Theo Epstein, "You mean to tell me your scouts have the whole country, 50 states, every high school and every college in America, and this is who they came back with?"
Pedroia has fought that predictable bias his entire life and has delighted in shutting up and shouting down the doubters. By age 25 he had won the Rookie of the Year award, the Most Valuable Player Award and a World Series title. Through his first six seasons Pedroia has an .838 OPS. Only five second basemen have started better: Chase Utley and four others who played more than half a century ago (Jackie Robinson, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon and George Grantham). This season, however, has been his best yet. His .880 OPS through Sunday is a career-high, as are his 22 stolen bases and .401 OBP. He has already hit 15 home runs (two shy of his career high) and ranks behind only Jose Bautista of Toronto in Wins Above Replacement, an advanced metric that measures how many more victories a player is worth than a Triple A player at the same position. And that's after an abysmal start (he was hitting .237 on May 11) and with a screw in his foot from a 2010 injury that only now has healed fully.
Pedroia plays as big as anyone—big hits, big swing, big mouth—yet is undersold because of the narrative we attach to small players: scrappy overachiever, otherwise known as David Eckstein Syndrome. Pedroia is indeed a zealous worker, as evidenced by his improved speed. On scouts' 80-point scale, Pedroia was a 40 to 45 runner in college. "Now he's a 50 and an elite base stealer," Epstein says. "That's almost impossible. I can't remember it ever happening [with speed rating]. It always goes in the other direction."
Pedroia, however, is gifted with freakish hand-eye coordination. He is, in truth, far more like Yogi Berra, Joe Morgan and Kirby Puckett—impact players no bigger than he—than he is like Eckstein. Pedroia's career OPS (granted, he is still at the peak of his career) is higher than that of any player listed at 5'8" or less since World War II.
"Scrappy is the word he can't get away from," Epstein says. "It's bull---- because it undersells him, [says] that all he's doing is outworking people. He's a great baseball player."
There is a reason the Red Sox put Pedroia on the cover of the player-development manual they distributed to their staff in spring training three years ago. He is the template for not only how to play the game but also how to approach it. At Arizona State, Pedroia, the son of a tire salesman, gave up his scholarship his last two years so Murphy could recruit a much-needed pitcher. After his second season with Boston, he signed so quickly and so cheaply for such a long-term deal (six years, $40.5 million, with a team option for a seventh year) that even Epstein admitted, "We almost felt guilty adding an option year. He said, 'I love it here. I want to be here.' He encouraged [us to make] it as long as possible."
In short Pedroia is not just the touchstone of Red Sox baseball ("We give him so much responsibility," Francona says) but also an elixir for all those who have grown disillusioned by a dearth of effort, humility or loyalty in pro sports. "I really don't do anything except play baseball and go home and do whatever my son wants to do," Pedroia said. "Off the field I'm normal. On the field? I'm kind of a maniac."
One day last month in their clubhouse, Red Sox players were discussing rumors that the front office was trying to trade for Colorado pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez.
"I know there's no way I could be in that deal," said Pedroia, who had a home run and four RBIs in Boston's 2007 World Series sweep of the Rockies, "because I'm wanted for murder in Colorado."
Before Game 3 of that Series, the Red Sox were walking into Coors Field when a security guard sized up Pedroia, took him for an intruder rather than a ballplayer, and insisted that he produce I.D. Pedroia didn't break stride. Recalling the bomb he hit with his first Series swing, he barked, "I'm the guy who took Jeff Francis onto the Mass Pike. How's that?"
On Sept. 23, 2006—hitting .183 and in the big leagues for all of one month as a late-season call-up—Pedroia hit a leadoff homer off hard-throwing Toronto righthander A.J. Burnett and boasted when he reached the dugout, "Ninety-eight [mph] coming in and 108 going out!"
Murphy was overseas when one of his assistants recruited Pedroia to Arizona State. "The first time I met him, he walked into my office and he had on a white cutoff undershirt," Murphy says. "He's standing there with his pale skin, all of 138 pounds, and he goes, 'Hey, Coach, what do you think of these guns?' Obviously, there was nothing there. I said, 'Hell, you better be able to pick up that ground ball.'"
In a game against Wichita State and its ace, Mike Pelfrey (now with the Mets), Pedroia hit the first pitch he saw off the wall and screamed at Pelfrey, "Ninety-six coming in, 104 going out! Get ready for the laser show all day!" Another day, while Florida State took pregame infield, Pedroia yelled at its star shortstop, Stephen Drew, "You want to see how a real shortstop fields? Take a seat and watch. You're the guy on the cover of Baseball America? Are you kidding me?"
Recalls Murphy, "Stephen, who is a beautiful human being, is looking over with this look like, Who is that batboy screaming at me?"
Pedroia hit .384 at Arizona State, but nobody wanted him through the first 64 picks of the 2004 draft, which included seven middle infielders (only one of whom, Drew, has become an established regular) and six picks by the Twins alone. Now it was Boston's turn. "He was on our list of guys we thought would definitely be gone by the time our pick came around," Epstein says. "It was him or Kurt Suzuki.
"During that year the scouts kept coming back and saying, 'We didn't consider him coming into the year, but you know who's a good player? That shortstop at ASU. He's tiny and doesn't really have any tools, he takes a huge swing but squares the ball up as well as anybody, he probably has as good hands as anybody in the country.... It's just too bad he doesn't have more tools.'"
The Red Sox, though, were enticed by Pedroia's hitting for extra-base power with few strikeouts. They also marked his makeup as "off the charts." Says Epstein, "It was pretty clear he loved the game, was not afraid and was a big-time baseball rat."
Three springs later the Red Sox handed Pedroia the second base job, but by May 3, 2007, he was hitting .180 and major league scouts and the media had written him off as an ill-fated combination of being a little man with big man's swing. Indeed, Pedroia swings with a fierce uppercut, a long stride and some occasionally choppy footwork, like a hammer thrower in the batter's box. But the violence in his swing is confined to his lower half. His barrel, in fact, takes a quick path to the ball because his hands are so extraordinary. When the Red Sox this spring measured all their players' hand-eye coordination, Pedroia and Jose Iglesias, a slick-fielding shortstop prospect, came out on top.
Supreme athleticism is the foundation of Pedroia's big swing as well as his footwork in the field. "I love that little [guy]," says White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "It looks like he escaped from Cirque du Soleil and they put a uniform on him."
In the midst of the slump at the start of his rookie season, while riding in a taxi with Kelli, Pedroia called Murphy. In the background the coach could hear Kelli saying, "Dustin, look what these people are saying!"
What the media were saying did not bother Pedroia. Ever confident, he couldn't believe people would question him like that. "Do you believe these guys are on me like this?" he said. After Pedroia and Murphy finished talking, Pedroia sent his coach a text. The 5'8" rookie who was hitting .180 and getting hammered in the press typed out this message: I'm about to put Red Sox Nation on my back.
He hit .336 the rest of the season.
Pedroia still checks in occasionally with Murphy. "Whattaya got? Whattaya got?" Pedroia will ask, looking for words of wisdom.
"Dustin, why are you calling me?" Murphy will say. "You know what's going to happen. You know you're going to be in the Hall of Fame."
Pedroia will text back after one of their sessions, Thanks, Coach. You know I'm going to hit .300, right?
"I've always said, If you're a career .300 hitter and on the last day of the year you're hitting .270, you're going to play a 30-inning game and find a way to get up to .300," Pedroia says. "You have to think that way."
"How much he believes in himself is vital to who he is," Epstein said. "He talks more s--- than anybody in the league, and no one takes it the wrong way."
Says Francona, "I have never met anybody like him. Not Pete Rose, not anybody. That kid is everything about baseball wrapped up in that little f------ body."
Francona and Pedroia have such a close relationship that they resemble a traveling comedy team. They play cribbage every day—they get hundreds of cribbage boards, many of them handcrafted, from fans—and during games they exchange high-decibel insults. "A screamfest," Francona says.
"I like beating his ass," Pedroia says.
Last month Pedroia received a bottle of expensive vodka from a bar owner who wanted a signed jersey. "Hey, Tito!" Pedroia shouted across the clubhouse. "I got something for you. Drink this before the game. We're trying to win tonight and this might help you manage!"
A few nights earlier Francona had called a squeeze play in the bottom of the 12th inning of a tie against the Royals—the play blew up when shortstop Marco Scutaro missed the sign—in what became a Red Sox loss. "He's an idiot," Pedroia says of Francona. "He tries to squeeze the other day? What's wrong with him? He tried to squeeze off a guy throwing 95 and coming [sidearm]. Our dugout got all quiet and I wanted to start laughing, but I could tell he was pissed. I didn't mess with him until the next day. I'm like, 'Dude, you've got to chill out, man. Who's going to bunt a guy throwing 95 [sidearm]? Thank God Scoot missed the bunt sign, because if the pitch was in, it would have hit him in the throat. You could have caused us to miss our shortstop for six weeks with a broken neck!'"
Two years ago in Baltimore, in Victor Martinez's first game behind the plate after the Red Sox obtained him in a trade with Cleveland, Francona walked to the mound to make a pitching change. "Pedey goes to me, 'Get the [bleep] out of here. Leave us alone and we'll win the [bleeping] game!' " Francona says. "And Victor has this look on his face like, What the [bleep] is going on here?"
Francona especially cherishes that Pedroia's confidence and fearlessness are transferable. In a room full of strong personalities—Jason Varitek the captain; Ortiz, the cool cat; Kevin Youkilis, the spring-loaded third baseman; Adrian Gonzalez, the quiet pro; Jonathan Papelbon, the loopy fireballer—Pedroia is Francona's top lieutenant, a special ops force all his own. He yaps constantly, for instance, at centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, against whom he played in the Pac-10 and whose calmness scares him.
"I've got to make sure he's ready to play the game hard," Pedroia says. "I just kind of stab at him. He does everything in life slow, then he runs fast. He makes me nervous. I feel like one day he's going to forget to go up to the box, just stand there in the on-deck circle."
Ortiz, too, is a frequent target of Pedroia's, and not just for his flamboyant wardrobe. "What he wears is embarrassing," Pedroia says. "Sometimes he chirps when he's feeling good, and when he's feeling good sometimes he tries to hit home runs. And when David tries to hit home runs he has zero chance of getting a hit. He'll hit a ground ball to second every time. So I yell at him, 'Hey, David, if you don't hit the ball to leftfield we're going to fight.' He kind of looks at me like, 'Yeah, you're right. I better hit the ball to leftfield.' So then I yell at him and he tightens it up."
Says Ortiz, whom Pedroia calls Pun, as in Punisher, "I love Pedey. He is something special. He's like a little brother to me."
If you think of the Red Sox' clubhouse as a cattle farm, Pedroia would be the little herding dog, a corgi, that by nature must run and bark and nip at heels to make everyone function with some order. This works on the field as well as off. "He kind of runs the show here," Francona says. "And the more he runs it, the better off we are. I can't say that whenever he talks they listen, because he never shuts up. But the more he has to say about how we do things, the better off we are."
Until recently Pedroia was listed in his wife's phone as Pedro, his nickname in college. (Kelli also attended Arizona State and was introduced to him by a mutual friend.) In 2010, thanks to a postgame lecture to reporters defending Ortiz, who was having a slow start, Pedroia became known as Laser Show, which gave way to another nickname last month.
That night in St. Petersburg, after a 16th-inning single by Pedroia beat Tampa Bay 1--0, a bunch of Red Sox players were eating in the food room off the visiting clubhouse when outfielder Darnell McDonald referred to Pedroia as Laser Show. "I don't want to be called that anymore," Pedroia said.
McDonald, a bit perplexed, replied, "Well, what do you want to be called?"
"I don't know, I. ... " Pedroia paused and looked around the room. He saw Ortiz hunched over a plate of chicken smothered in a sauce.
"David was eating this chicken from the Dominican Republic," Pedroia said. "I don't know who he got it from. But it was [bleeping] disgusting. So I said, 'I want to be called that.'"
"What is that?" McDonald said.
"[Bleeping] Muddy Chicken," Pedroia said.
"They started laughing, so they started calling me that," he said. "And it was a 16-inning game, and I think there were some cocktails involved in some people's interviews. That's basically it. And then we got back home and, thanks to New Balance, there are boxes of Muddy Chicken T-shirts. I'm like, What's wrong with you guys?"
Is Muddy Chicken better than Laser Show?
"I don't really like that, either," he says.
Pedroia can laugh at himself, which endears him even to opponents and takes the edge off his boasting. In the middle of a 25-game hitting streak last month, for instance, he threw baseball superstition aside and shaved his beard and cut what's left of his hair to almost nothing, explaining, "I don't know. I was looking in the mirror and going, Man, I'm an ugly guy. I need to clean this up."
"He's a beautiful, spirited kid," Murphy said.
His spirit, even his love of baseball, was tested two years ago. Kelli was pregnant with Dylan and still almost two months from her due date when she went into labor. Doctors were concerned about the baby and administered a steroid shot to Kelli to help the baby's lungs develop in case of a premature birth. Dustin missed the game that night. Kelli, her delivery forestalled, remained in the hospital for eight days. When she was released, she was ordered to stay on strict bed rest for the remaining five weeks of her pregnancy. In the meantime, Dustin was named to the All-Star Game, which was being played in St. Louis. He skipped the game.
"That was a huge back and forth," Kelli says. "Who wants to miss the All-Star Game? That was a huge honor. But now we have our unborn son, and there are issues. MLB looked into flying him out just for the day, but Obama was throwing out the first pitch and all the airports were shut down."
Kelli went into labor on Aug. 18. Pedroia was in Toronto. He jumped on a plane to Boston, told a cabbie he would pay him as much as he wanted if he drove as fast as he could and made it to the delivery room at Mass General Hospital 20 minutes before Dylan was born.
The boy is perfectly healthy. "It was life-changing, man," Pedroia says. "I really didn't know what to expect, but once he came everything changed. I really don't worry about taking care of myself. He comes first. I think I think that way because my dad was always that way with me, just making sure I was doing the right thing or playing the game the right way or being respectful to people."
That's another way we connect to baseball. No other sport, and few pastimes at that, can so strengthen a bond between father and son. Guy Pedroia, after putting in full days at his tire store, always had time to throw batting practice or hit ground balls to Dustin in Woodlands, Calif. Before Little League games Guy would take Dustin and some teammates to a batting cage—seven bucks for 15 minutes. "We'd go there and rake and then play ball," Dustin says. "Those blue Iron Mike machines and yellow balls. That was cool."
Now the son has a son of his own, and instead of a Woodlands batting cage, they have the run of Fenway Park. Dylan is a version of Dustin in miniature. When Kelli tells him it's time for bed, he will give a dismissive "bye-bye" signal with his hand and carry on. In the clubhouse he will rag players to the point that even Dustin said, "I'm embarrassed for myself now." And, like his father, Dylan has a close if goofy relationship with Uncle Tito.
"If he goes into the clubhouse he gets gum," Kelli says, "and—this is a horrible habit—Tito and Dylan swap gum back and forth. I'm not allowed in there, so what can I do?"
This is the beautiful life of Dustin Pedroia. Family and baseball separated by what he estimates to be 50 feet. "I think I've changed a lot since me and my wife had Dylan," he says. "That's the most important thing, being a dad first. When I come to the field I do all I can do to help us win, and then go home and do all that I can for him."
Yes, Kelli says, "he's changed a lot since we got the little guy." Why, just the other day, she says, the boys pulled up to the Fenway gate at 1:15 in the afternoon, and Dustin left about 30 minutes later after drilling some baseballs off the Monster. "Before Dylan?" she said. "He would be there about 12:30."
5 GUYS, IN SHORT
SIZE DIDN'T MATTER TO THESE MEN WHO MADE BASEBALL HISTORY (WELL, MAYBE TO GAEDEL IT DID)
The 5'6" Scooter hit .324 to win the AL MVP ahead of, among others, 5'7" teammate Yogi Berra, who finished third. Holy cow!
St. Louis Browns 1951
The shortest man ever to play in a big league game, the 3'7" pinch hitter walked on four pitches before being removed, never to return.
At 5'7", Little Joe was the first second baseman to win back-to-back NL MVPs; he also led the Reds to two straight world titles.
On June 20 against the Red Sox, the 5'5" Patek became only the second shortstop, after Ernie Banks, to hit three homers in a game.
Red Sox 2008
A year after being named AL Rookie of the Year and winning a World Series, Pedroia was the AL MVP, hitting .326 with 54 doubles.