Dustin Pedroia Comes Out Swinging
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?