Dustin Pedroia Comes Out Swinging
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?”