Dustin Pedroia Comes Out Swinging

By Tommy Craggs | Boston Magazine |

The new face of baseball, at the dawn of what we’re now all solemnly calling the Post-Steroid Era, has a scratchy sort of beard that has annexed the lower precincts of his cheekbones and a nose that curves faintly skyward, giving him the perpetual air of someone looking up at the world. “I got measured yesterday,” Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox second baseman, is saying.

He is sitting in the shade outside the Red Sox’s training facility in Fort Myers, Florida, sipping a Red Bull, having just completed the first day of full-squad workouts. This is his third training camp as a major-leaguer, and arguably his first as an authentic baseball phenomenon, and shortly before arriving—after an off-season in which Pedroia won the American League MVP award and signed a six-year, $40.5 million extension with the Sox—he pronounced himself both “shredded” and “jacked,” which makes him sound like something recently emerged from a chop shop but which you’ll be relieved to know is actually a good thing. These days, he looks little like the pudgy kid who was riding buses in Pawtucket until his call-up in 2006. He is leaner now, his body fat down from nearly 17 percent to 10 percent. His hair on top is thinning noticeably, both at the crown and above the temples; his father, Guy, likes to joke that he can measure his son’s anxiety during the season by how far his hairline has receded. Depending on where you’re standing, Pedroia can look either impudently boyish or prematurely middle-aged, which is to say that the new face of baseball, at the dawn of what we’re now all solemnly calling the Post-Steroid Era, is Opie, age 25.

Let us listen now as he settles a matter of great and enduring debate.

“My legitimate height and weight…,” he says, answering a question no one has asked but he probably knew was inevitable. “I’m 5-8, 170.”

People will scoff, but this has the virtue of being at least reasonably official, not to mention mostly consistent with the last measurement his father took, more than five years ago, when he leveled a yardstick on Pedroia’s head and snicked a line onto the wall of the family garage. We can now say with some authority that, though he is not 5-foot-9 (as the media guide would have it), he is certainly not 5-foot-6 (as everyone else would have it) or 5-foot-5 (as he told reporters the other day) or 4-foot-8 (as a teammate told reporters during the 2007 American League Championship Series). He is not “part midget” (as one of his old coaches described him) or a “goddamn jockey” (as White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called him). He is an inch shorter and a few pounds lighter than the American mean, and an inch taller and a few pounds heavier than the game’s greatest second baseman, Joe Morgan, which suggests that he is as tall and as heavy as he needs to be.

“His size is part of who he is,” says Theo Epstein, the Red Sox general manager. “His whole life people have been reacting to him, initially, in a certain manner, and his whole life he’s been channeling that and turning it around and laughing as he steps right over them.”

In this, Pedroia’s story has lined up neatly with a story baseball desperately wants to tell about itself, here at the dawn of what we’re now all solemnly calling the Post-Steroid Era. Two years into Pedroia’s career, in fact, it has already been smoothed into myth: the tiny Everyman who, by dint of sheer effort and uncommon grit, without the benefit of size or Norbolethone, manages to pull himself through the early chapters of an Alger novel and become a superstar. The little infielder who could. A grinder. Plucky. Scrappy—always scrappy. Here’s the Boston Globe last fall, damn near hitting for the cycle: “Pedroia is the national pastime’s epitome of pluck, a trash-talking scrapper who outplayed expectations at every level, from T-ball to the bigs, grinding his way to stardom.” There are many things wrong with this sentiment, not least of which is that it shortchanges a player whose gifts are every bit as singular as, say, Alex Rodriguez’s. It takes a lot more than pluck to go an entire season of high school baseball without striking out once—not once—as Pedroia did his senior year in Woodland, California.

But baseball today is less interested in the gifts of a player than in the tedious assurance that they have been arrived at honestly. This explains why Pedroia, not your traditional cover boy, is now pictured on the front of video games. He represents the sort of character to whom baseball often turns, in times of perceived crisis, as a reliquary for an imagined set of lost values: the scrappy ballplayer. Because of his size and his style of play and the false narrative of his constant overachievement (a story that can be told about anyone on a 25-man roster, steroids or no), he has been judged the safe superstar, the hood ornament for “clean” baseball. Pedroia finds himself in a funny position: overpraised for all the wrong reasons, underappreciated for all the important ones. This visibly bothers him. A rare talent wanders onto the scene and all anybody wants to talk about is what he isn’t—not big, not tall, not chemically promiscuous.

“Did I watch A-Rod?” Pedroia says. The day before, Rodriguez had done his elaborate butoh dance for the cameras. The day before that, David Ortiz had spent a press conference torching the better part of the Bill of Rights and trying to out-witch-hunt the witch-hunters, demanding more testing and stiffer penalties. Only a few days into camp, the subject was already radioactive. “Yeah, I watched him.” And he laughs uncomfortably. “I guess he’s sorry. I don’t know. I don’t really understand that whole era. I missed it. …I’ve never taken a shortcut in my entire life.”

Earlier in the month, when news broke that a Rodriguez sample from 2003 had tested positive for Primobolan, an anabolic steroid that cannot be sold or marketed in the United States, Pedroia was in Arizona, working out at Athletes’ Performance, a sort of Muscle Beach for major-sport athletes. “When the Sports Illustrated report came out, we were sitting there,” Pedroia recalls, “and this humongous football player laughed and looked at me and goes, ‘You don’t have to ever worry about that.’ And I’m like, You know what? That pisses me off. Like, No shit. But my body’s not that bad, know what I mean?”

Let’s linger for a moment on this word, “scrappy.”
It’s a linguistic spitball, this word, scuffed up and coated in foreign substances, and it has bucked and dived across nearly the whole of professional baseball’s history, entering the lexicon at the tag end of the 19th century with one meaning and leaving the next century with quite another.

The first player so labeled was probably John Carroll. He stood 5-foot-7 and played the outfield for the most part, ending his career with Cleveland in 1887. “Scrappy” was his nickname, for reasons now lost to history, though it’s likely it referred to a pugnacious disposition, i.e., he was prone to scraps. It’s difficult to know, though, because the christening of Scrappy Carroll went on behind the back of the Oxford English Dictionary, which locates the first use of “scrappy,” in this sense, in 1895, nearly a decade after Carroll had left the game. According to Jonathan Lighter, editor of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, this usage of “scrappy” was at least popularized, if not coined, on our baseball diamonds.

“‘Scrappy,’ in those days, meant that you would fight at the drop of a hat,” says John Thorn, editor of Total Baseball. The adjective was reserved for guys like Scrappy Bill Joyce, maybe the greatest Scrappy of all, known in the 1890s as a “kicker,” who “complained loudly and profanely at the umpire’s decisions,” by one account; Scrappy Dan Shay, a player and manager who one day in 1917 felt a black busboy was being untowardly saucy and decided to put a bullet in the man’s stomach (Shay was acquitted); Kid Elberfeld, nicknamed “The Tabasco Kid” for his hot temper; Johnny Evers, the “scrappy Trojan,” as the New York Times called him; and pretty much the entire Gashouse Gang, that famously rowdy 1934 Cardinals bunch, led by the ur-scrappy shortstop Leo Durocher.

Long about 1950, however, the meaning began to change. Rather than refer to a certain cast of mind and temperament, the word came to describe a mode of play, an outward appearance of “scrappiness” reflected in a visibly energetic and effortful style. For some time, Nellie Fox of the White Sox was all but wedded to the word. In 1957, Time magazine puzzled over Fox, and in doing so built the hobbyhorse that sportscasters like Joe Buck have made a career out of riding: “No one is quite sure how Nellie does it. He looks too small (5 ft. 8 in., 150 lbs.) for a high school club,” Time said, “and he hasn’t the heft for more than three or four home runs a year.”

The magazine made a point of drawing a contrast between the scrappy Fox and the “flashy” shortstop Luis Aparicio, which was typical of the era. This was, after all, an arduous period of integration in baseball, and the influx of black and Latino ballplayers was greeted with a lot of clumsy euphemizing and pathetic armchair sociology. Writers pointed to black ballplayers’ “indolence” and “insouciance.” The Latino players, for their part, were stereotyped as brazen, hotheaded, flaky. And neither blacks nor Latinos could “perform up to the white ballplayer when it comes to mental alertness,” Alvin Dark famously said in 1964, when he was managing the San Francisco Giants—Willie Freaking Mays’s Giants. In such a climate, the word “scrappy” easily became something of a shibboleth among fearful people who felt baseball’s heritage slipping away. And as Thorn points out, the game’s “unstated quota system” ensured that the handful of black players who did crack a major-league roster were necessarily too good to be called merely “scrappy,” one reason the word has remained so stubbornly monochromatic to this day.

“Scrappy” approached the new century, then, as “the consolation prize of baseball adjectives—like saying a girl has a nice sense of humor,” Thorn says. The model was established by the relentlessly overpraised 5-foot-7 shortstop David Eckstein, who had the good fortune of being a slow, limp-armed, dink-and-dunking mediocrity who was not so bad at the plate as to prevent two of his teams from winning the World Series, and who not incidentally is as white as the fresh-fallen snow. Eckstein remains the sort of guy who makes Fox announcers sound like the front row of a Jonas Brothers show. He even won a World Series MVP with the Cardinals in 2006, mostly on the strength of a few doubles, of which at least one would’ve been caught had the Tigers not penciled in the moai of Easter Island in left field. (Poor Craig Monroe is probably still trying to get a read on that line drive.)

And now, in the twilight of Eckstein’s career and at the dawn of the Post-Steroid Era, the mantle has been passed to Pedroia. Today, “scrappy” serves as an implicit rebuke to the super-sized stars of the so-called Steroid Era, in much the same way it once carved out a fatuous distinction between white ballplayers and black and Latino ballplayers—the old spitball dancing once more on baseball’s ill winds. Pedroia has had to endure a lot of facile comparisons to Eckstein, whose game bears as much resemblance to Pedroia’s as it does to Manute Bol’s. Last year, with his big whip of a swing, Pedroia hit a robust .326 and rapped 73 extra-base hits, the 10th-best total all-time for any player 5-foot-9 or shorter. In addition, Pedroia’s 54 doubles came against 52 strikeouts, and he whiffed on only 8 percent of the pitches he swung at. “You used to see those kinds of numbers,” Theo Epstein says. “Like, Joe DiMaggio hit 30 homers and struck out 18 times or something. You don’t see that anymore. …I think [‘scrappy’] is just a convenient label for him. But it doesn’t really define who he is.”

He was walking at seven months, his father remembers, and almost from the beginning he was exceptionally coordinated. “I’ll tell you what,” Guy Pedroia says. “He was doing things, and I’m saying, ‘Oh, my God.'” The kids in town would play a baseballish game with a wadded-up paper cup, which hitters would have to strike with their hands. Dustin was playing just out of diapers.

He got his athleticism from his mother, Debbie, a former college tennis player who also bequeathed to Dustin her small frame (she is 5 feet tall). She was his first coach: T-ball, when he was four years old. “She was tough,” Guy says with a laugh. “She couldn’t win by a big enough margin to make her happy.”

Pedroia played football as a freshman, a quarterback at 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds who could nevertheless zip the ball 40 yards on a line. He played basketball, too, and up in the stands, Guy would watch his son weave the ball behind his back, smiling all the while, and wonder, Where did this come from?

Whatever the sport, Pedroia played it intuitively. His old baseball coaches invariably mention his “baseball IQ.” Rob Bruno, the coach of a Northern California traveling team who followed Pedroia closely and often coached against him, was struck by the kid’s ability to make tiny defensive adjustments, how he would move a step to the left or right, depending on the hitter, and turn every grounder into a routine out. “He was a 15-year-old who looked like a 13-year-old playing like an 18-year-old,” Bruno says. (He also recalls the kid’s towering self-assurance: “At 15, he came up and introduced himself by saying, ‘We’re going to take it to you guys today.'”) Pat Murphy, Pedroia’s coach at Arizona State, never had to tell the then-shortstop where to go on the field, and today he waxes positively mystical on the subject. “Pedroia,” Murphy says, “has the unbelievable ability to understand himself in time and space.”

If Pedroia’s performance arises from any one trait, it’s not some intangible notion like “scrappiness.” It’s his kinesthetic genius. Consider his swing: Coming into the majors, it wasn’t just big. It was wild, overanxious, too long, people feared. Live, it might look that way, even now. You see a smallish guy bugging out his eyes and wiggling his fingers on the bat handle and then swinging for Cambridge. His back knee nearly drops to the dirt; his front leg kicks out toward the shortstop (a “red flag” for the Sox’s hitting coach, Dave Magadan, the first time he studied it). But break it down into its component parts, and the swing becomes a model of efficiency and restraint. “It’s violent, but there’s control,” Magadan says. “He keeps his front shoulder more or less on the baseball, and he’s got a little bit of a bat lag.” That means he’s able to swing at the last possible moment, which suggests both prodigious bat speed and preternatural hand-eye coordination. In this regard, Pedroia’s size may actually be an asset. “You’re direct to the baseball to the point of contact,” Magadan says. “A guy like him who’s so short to the baseball can wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. He’s able to recognize pitches.” The very bigness of his swing is its virtue. “That’s a very athletic move,” Rob Bruno says, “to be able to hit a baseball coming at 90 miles per hour and to be swinging with maximum effort, as he does, but to also be constantly squaring up to the ball.”

Epstein drafted Pedroia with the 65th pick in 2004 after a junior year in which he hit .393 with a .502 on-base percentage and 34 extra-base hits against 15 strikeouts. “He’s easy to dismiss at first glance,” Epstein says. “You walk into a ballpark and someone says, ‘Pick out the best pro prospect,’ and you don’t know anything about their backgrounds or stats, and you watch the guys take infield, watch the game, he wouldn’t be the guy who jumps out at you, for obvious reasons. But if you don’t look at him at all, don’t look at the scouting, just look at the spreadsheet, he looks like one of the best hitters in the country.”

Woodland is a bedroom community of more than 50,000 people
that lies 20 miles northwest of Sacramento. It is often described as being something out of Our Town, which is an odd point of comparison for a place once known by its early settlers as “By Hell.” “It’s a dump,” says Pedroia, whose parents run a tire store on Main Street and whose family seems to occupy a position in Woodland roughly equivalent to that enjoyed by the Grimaldis in Monaco. “You can quote me on that. I don’t give a shit.” He shakes his head.

Pedroia acknowledges he’s angry with the town for something he won’t specify, though it’s safe to assume it involves his older brother Brett’s arrest, in January, on child-molestation charges. (Brett has pleaded not guilty.) “Everyone wants to get out of there,” he goes on. “You don’t want to stay in Woodland. What do you want to stay in Woodland for? The place sucks. The newspaper there, I don’t really get along with. I come from your town. You should embrace me. I play for the Boston Red Sox. You haven’t had a lot of major-leaguers come out of your city.”

Small-town California is one of the country’s great incubators of seething resentment, which simultaneously explains both the state’s wackadoodle politics and its hotly competitive sports environment. Pedroia, like all elite athletes (and like a glowering politician from Yorba Linda named Nixon), has long been an avid, almost pathological, collector of slights, some genuine, many imagined. “I think I’m extremely bothered by negativity,” Pedroia allows. “I only surround myself with positive people, and I think negativity—it motivates me, it makes me angry, makes me a better player.” To hear it told now, he was doubted all along because of his size, lightly recruited as a prep, underappreciated as a collegian at Arizona State, dismissed outright as a farmhand with the Sox. Dustin agonistes.

“His story is very much about overcoming adversity,” says writer Edward Delaney, who is ghosting Pedroia’s forthcoming book, Born to Play. “He was a great player at every level, but questions on his size and strength caused a lot of people to dismiss him too quickly.” This is true only to an extent. At least one major-league scout, from the Phillies, was bird-dogging Pedroia hard during his high school days, and so many colleges were calling the Pedroia household during his senior year that Guy made his son whittle down his list to five programs.

Besides, any 25-year-old nervy enough to set down his memoir is clearly not paralyzed by other people’s criticism. And yet athletes, even the great ones—maybe especially the great ones—have an endless capacity for cultivating a sense of victimhood. It’s a useful self-deception, a way of rousing the emulative ethic deep in every jock’s soul. Pedroia’s coach at Woodland, Rob Rinaldi, likes to tell the story of Chris Patrick and the National Classic. It was 1999, and Rinaldi had recently returned from a major tournament down in Long Beach, where he had coached this Patrick kid, a shortstop. He was a coach’s dream. Great leader. Made all the plays. Patrick was a soon-to-be senior at a high school near Fresno. Pedroia was a junior-to-be in Woodland. One day, Rinaldi happened to mention to Pedroia just how much he liked Patrick.

“What was so good about him?” Pedroia demanded.

“Great leader. Makes all the plays,” Rinaldi told Pedroia.

“This really bothered him,” Rinaldi recalls today. Pedroia chewed on this for the rest of the year and even into the following high school season, approaching Rinaldi every month or so and asking, “What about Patrick, man? You still think he’s better than me?”

As it happened, the two teams met in the 2000 National Classic, one of the premier events in high school baseball. The squads were booked into the same hotel, and shortly after Woodland checked in, sure enough, in walked Patrick’s team. Pedroia turned to Rinaldi.

“Which guy is he?” he demanded.


“Patrick. Which guy is he?”

Rinaldi pointed him out.

“Go get him right now. Tell him I want to take ground balls in the parking lot right now. We’ll see who’s better.”

In the game, Pedroia gave Woodland its first run when he doubled, stole third, and tagged up on a foul ball on which the pitcher, first baseman, and catcher all converged. (The catcher made the play, but no one covered the plate.) Then, in the seventh, the game’s final inning, Pedroia uncorked a three-run home run to push Woodland to a 4–3 lead. In the bottom half, he flipped a double play. “Dustin single-handedly won the game,” Rinaldi recalls. Afterward, Pedroia gave his coach an earful. “Who you want on your team now?”

Nearly a decade later, in a slack moment during spring training, the reigning American League MVP laughs coldly at the mention of Rinaldi’s story.

“You know what?” he says. “It ticked me off. He’s my coach, first of all. If you want [Patrick] on your team, go coach his high school. You’re either on my side or you’re out of here. You’re either two feet in or two feet out.

“I remember it,” Pedroia goes on. “I remember everything. I remember thinking to myself, ‘There’s no way that guy’s better than me.’ But that’s what pushes me. At that time, was that guy better than me? Yeah, probably. But I wasn’t going to let myself think that.”

Pedroia has somehow imagined himself into a scenario in which, even after winning a World Series, even after the accolades, he remains the unappreciated little guy in a world of Chris Patricks. We’ll see who’s better. And listening to him here in Fort Myers, at the top of his profession, talking sadly of ancient slights, it becomes abundantly clear: No one pushes the scrappy myth harder than Pedroia himself. He buys into it all the way, all 5-foot-8, 170 pounds of him, just as surely as the old politicians bought their own guff about log cabins.

It is early afternoon now, which, in the languid nature of the first week of spring training, means it has been a long day for the Sox. A warm sun arcs over Florida’s Gulf Coast. Pedroia is talking once again about A-Rod. His subject now is last year’s All-Star Game, where Pedroia and teammate Kevin Youkilis made up the right side of the infield, while Rodriguez and Yankees idol Derek Jeter constituted the left. Tomorrow, perhaps leery of feeding a rivalry whose coverage in the tabloid press alone accounts for the destruction of several spotted owl habitats, Pedroia will ask that his comments about A-Rod be stricken from the record. (“That guy,” he will say, pausing for a moment to find the right word, “is a dork.”) But at this moment, here in the shade of the clubhouse, he is expansive.

“He was the man. He’s always been the man, everywhere he’s been,” Pedroia says. “Me and Youk want to be the man, but we’ve never been looked at like that.” Pedroia’s tone is emphatic now, and for a moment you forget that he and Youkilis were well enough regarded to finish first and third in last year’s MVP voting. But listen to him now, making tiny mental adjustments, positioning himself (just a step one way or the other) so that he still has something to prove, so that he remains the perpetual underdog.

“So that drives us,” he continues, now thumping the table, “to be even better”—THUMP—”and better—THUMP—”to prove to everybody we’re just as good as they are. You know what I mean? How come people don’t think like that?

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2009/03/dustin-pedroia/