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Former Red Sox Kevin Youkilis wrote a letter to Red Sox Nation Sunday. Youkilis thanked his coaches, his teammates, his family and his fans for what he called the “honor and a privilege to play every home game of my career in Boston before a sold out Fenway Park.”
Classy move by a classy guy, no matter what anyone else may say about his character. But Youkilis brought so much more to the Red Sox than just class.
Youkilis’ arrival signaled the beginning of a new age in Red Sox history. From his first game on May 15, 2004 – a 4-0 win over the Blue Jays in which Youkilis batted 2-for-4 with a home run – Red Sox Nation knew they had someone special.
The Red Sox knew it too, putting him on both ALDS and World Series rosters that season. He only appeared in one postseason game, going hit-less in Game 2 of the ALDS, but Terry Francona had him stick around, just in case.
Youkilis played with the fire and grit Red Sox fans have always loved and identified with, making him an instant favorite. “Yoooouk” chants at Fenway Park filled became as commonplace as Fenway Franks or Wally the Green Monster.
Youkilis may never have been the most popular player on team – David Ortiz pretty much has that role locked down – but he was always a fan favorite.
Many more fan favorites have donned Red Sox uniforms over Youkilis’ eight-year career: Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Jed Lowrie and Will Middlebrooks, to name a few. And they all shared something in common with Youkilis: they all came out of the farm system.
That is Youkilis’ true legacy with the Red Sox: he was the first home-grown talent to come out of Theo Epstein’s rebuilt farm system. He showed Red Sox Nation that their organization would no longer rely exclusively on overpriced free-agent contracts and hired guns from other teams, as Dan Duquette so frequently did.
Instead, Epstein’s rosters would show more creativity. He’d poach players bound from Japan, trade for lesser-known talents and use more modern evaluative methods when scouting potential draft picks.
And he’d rebuild a farm system long since depleted. Whatever Epstein’s flaws as a GM might have been – overpaying for free agents, rarely trading well before the deadline, never finding an everyday shortstop – his greatest achievement was turning Boston’s farm system into a factory for superstars.
For Red Sox fans, it’s felt like every year a couple new names emerge out of the minor leagues: a reliever who could throw 100 miles per hour, a shortstop with great speed and an unbelievable glove, an outfield with a swing tailor-made for Fenway Park. For every setback, someone else seemed to come up and produce.
Home-grown talent won the Red Sox their 2007 World Series (other than Josh Beckett, of course) – a feat accomplished three years prior by veteran major leaguers. The 2004-2007 period can thus be seen as a maturation period in Red Sox history: the Red Sox needed three years for all of Epstein’s prospects to either reach the majors or fall in line behind other prospects and simply wait for their turn.
The Red Sox now have a phone directory’s worth of prospects on the team or ready to join, and that frees up cash to both sign better free agents (which, admittedly, doesn’t always work out) and keep the prospects who really soar. But in 2004, the farm system wasn’t ready to contribute on a massive scale yet.
All the farm system had in 2004 was Kevin Youkilis. He wasn’t the best prospect, but he was the first. And for that reason alone, he deserves both a permanent place in Red Sox history and a standing ovation when the White Sox come to Fenway Monday night.