Dustin Pedroia Comes Out Swinging
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.”