Kevin Youkilis immediately and (apparently) unwittingly invited the ire of Yankees fans and ignited a feeding frenzy among the media when he made what he clearly thought was a contextualized and innocuous comment about joining the Yankees and his history with the Red Sox. The comment is below:
“To say it negates all the years I played for the Boston Red Sox and all the tradition, you look at all the stuff I piled up in my house, to say I just throw it out the window is not true,” he said. “I will always be a Red Sock. That’s a part of your history, a part of your life. You can’t change that.”
Naturally, one sentence garnered all the headlines and it was done to create a story during the mostly dull, repetitive and languid days of spring training where, sans Alex Rodriguez and his traveling carnival, there’s not much to write about in Yankees camp. When read in full, Youkilis said nothing that could be construed as pronouncing fealty to the Red Sox, nor did he say he didn’t want to be a Yankee. However, after all the years of competition and intensity, Youkilis will be remembered as a Red Sox player who joined the Yankees out of mutual need. Unlike prior players such as Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon and even Roger Clemens, there was less ingrained hatred between the franchises when Boggs and Clemens were playing and Damon wasn’t prototypically “hated” by Yankees fans.
During the Boggs/Clemens years, the Red Sox were consistent playoff teams and the Yankees weren’t. The remnants of the rivalry stemmed from what went on over a decade before and had no present day feel. In fact, the Yankees were an awful, leaguewide joke. With Boggs and Clemens, the Red Sox won the AL East in 1986, 1988 and 1990. The Yankees were an also-ran in rampant disarray, bottoming out in 1989-91. Both Boggs and Clemens proved themselves to be loyal and valuable Yankees during their return to glory and maintenance of a great run. Damon was a likable, somewhat goofy and handsome acquisition who entered Yankees universe while they were still consensus selections to win the World Series. There was no reason to boo him.
In part due to the images of both franchises—the Red Sox as dirty, gritty and feisty and the Yankees as stiff, corporate, arrogant and stuffy—Youkilis doesn’t simply have to remove his Red Sox jersey and pull on the pinstripes to suddenly be a Yankee. The sour faces, beard and resemblance to Pigpen from Peanuts will not be tolerated in a Yankees clubhouse used to cleanliness, peace and quiet. Culture shock is to be expected and the media and fans are looking for methods to stir up the new surroundings for Youkilis and judge his adaptation to it.
It’s ironic that the catalyst to Youkilis’s departure from the Red Sox was a similarly unintentionally insulting statement made by then-Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine that Youkilis appeared less than emotionally and physically committed early in the 2012 season. With Valentine, it was misinterpreted and taken as a signal that the same Valentine who the players were afraid would show up was in full swing, confronting players and treating them with disrespect, causing them to face questions not about the game, but about what the manager said. They were waiting for it and when the opening arrived, it expedited Valentine’s inevitable doom.
It’s the same thing with Youkilis.
Whether or not Youkilis made this statement is irrelevant to the fans’ acceptance of him. The Yankees are not guaranteed anything in 2013. Given their age and lack of money to spend, the season can go either way. Fans will want someone upon whom to rain down their frustrations. They won’t boo CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira or Robinson Cano. There’s no point in booing Francisco Cervelli or Brett Gardner. They have an inexplicable love affair with Ichiro Suzuki. Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera are unbooable. I guess they could boo Curtis Granderson, but their hearts wouldn’t be in it because he’s such a good guy. A-Rod’s not around.
Unless he performs as he did during his MVP-caliber years with the Red Sox, Yankee fans will be waiting to attack. He clarified himself the next day, but it won’t matter if he doesn’t hit. He took the bait and the media reeled him in. The fans will feast as soon as they’re hungry. It won’t be because of what he said about his days with the Red Sox, but it certainly didn’t help.