Thursday, July 31, 2008 Updated: August 1, 10:41 AM ET
170 POUNDS OF MOUTH
By Jeff Bradley
This is just one of 162. Every day is pretty much the same. It's not quite 4 o'clock, three hours before the first pitch at Fenway Park, and Dustin Pedroia is in the Red Sox dugout, ranting. "No one's going to separate us," he says to backup catcher Kevin Cash. "I'm telling you, when we win the World Series, I'll high-five everyone, but then you and me are going into the outfield, and we're going to have a fistfight. And no one's going to separate us!"
Although Pedroia keeps a straight face, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Varitek cannot. Cash just looks straight ahead and with a slight smile says, "That's fine by me, man."
There's not going to be any fistfight. Not even a shouting match (at least not a two-way shouting match). Pedroia has no real beef with Cash. His only problem right now is that it's quiet. And that's got to change. You've no doubt heard the expression "Manny being Manny." Well, this is Pedie being Pedie. He's a little loudmouth punk. And in a clubhouse full of superstars, he's also the guy who energizes the defending champs—with a never-ending stream of smack. MANNY RAMIREZ THINKS PEDROIA IS CRAZY. "PEDIE NEVER SHUTS UP, MAN. BUT THAT'S WHY WE LOVE HIM. HE MAKES US ALL LAUGH."
From a distance, you might take the 24-year-old second baseman seriously, think he's bragging on himself and tearing others down. That would be a mistake. "C'mon, I'm like 5'2" 115," Pedroia says. "And this game's tough. I try to bring a loose attitude and make sure everyone's having fun. Hang around our team long enough, and you'll see that most of the jokes are on me."
Across the field, former Red Sox first baseman Kevin Millar steps out of the Orioles' dugout. "There he is," Pedroia says, "the only opposing player who gets his own song played for him when he comes to the plate at Fenway." It's a country hit, "My Town" by Montgomery Gentry, and it was Millar's intro during much of his time in Boston, from 2003 to '05. (The Sox finally stopped playing it for Millar after last season.) "I'm telling you, if they play that song tonight, I'm stopping the game. I'm going up to the booth and fighting the guy at the controls. Enough already."
Now Pedroia hops up the dugout steps and shouts in Millar's direction: "Hey, 2004 was like 20 years ago! And all you did was walk! Mariano let four fly! It was not, like, some 12-pitch at-bat!" Pedroia imitates Millar's stance in that critical Game 4 moment against the Yankees, with the Red Sox three outs away from elimination. He mimics the way Millar steps in the bucket. He does it four times. "Ball 1, Ball 2, Ball 3, Ball 4," he says. "That's all you did." Millar isn't even paying attention. "I've been hearing that for over a year," the veteran says when the story is relayed. "He says, 'You were Manny and Papi's teammate, and all you did was walk.' "
A little while later, when Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts appears, Pedroia pounds his own chest and shouts, "The strongest 160-pound player in the league, right here!" Roberts swats at the air like he's trying to shoo away a gnat as Pedroia repeats, "Right here!"
"Yeah, he's one of a kind," Roberts says. "He and I work out at the same place in Arizona in the off-season, and I've seen him call out NFL players during Ping-Pong games, asking them when they're starting Jenny Craig. He told Brady Quinn, who is a monster, a physical specimen, 'I'm going to rip this ball right off your throat.' He's a piece of work."
On and on it goes. Day after day, in these pregame hours, Pedroia stirs the pot, dishing out threats and insults and mixing in bold predictions about his performance at the plate. He has already texted Millar, "Did you bring your glasses for the laser show tonight?"
Pedroia's confidence reached new heights this summer, when he was voted an All-Star starter.
To his teammates, Pedroia is more than just an All-Star second baseman; he's also a mascot. "Pedie never shuts up, man," Manny Ramírez says with a smile. "He's a little crazy. But that's why we love him. He talks big and makes us all laugh." Adds first baseman Sean Casey, "Oh yeah, he's nuts. He'll say before the game, 'I'm going to hit four freaking rockets tonight, watch.' Then he'll make an out his first time up against, like, Roy Halladay throwing 97 with sick movement, and he'll come back to the dugout and say, 'This guy's got nothing. He freaking sucks. I should've killed that pitch!' "
Terry Francona says Pedroia has been spewing like this since May 2007, a month into his Rookie of the Year season—around the time that he began to erase a .182 April. (He's hit .327 since then.) "Once he got going, his personality started to come out," the manager says. "He held it back until he felt established, and maybe that held him back a bit too. But it probably wouldn't have gone over too well if he'd acted that way from the start."
In fact, Pedroia annoyed plenty of minor leaguers on his way to the Show. "He acted way too cocky, way too big league for my taste," says one former Triple-A teammate. "And I have to admit, I took some pleasure when he started off so badly. But I guess he's proved he belongs. You can't argue with the success the little SOB has had."
Generously listed at 5'9", 180 pounds (he's closer to 5'8", 170), Pedroia looks a little impish wearing his cap pulled low and sporting a scruffy, on-again, off-again beard that never seems like more than an idea. Sitting on the dugout bench, he strikes a more subdued tone for the moment. "I know everyone at the major league level is really good," he says. "And I have respect for them. I just don't want it in my head, or anyone else's, that we can't get a hit off a guy, so I'm not one to be praising a pitcher. I'd rather everyone believe we'll hit the guy."
It's a philosophy he developed at Arizona State. During Pedroia's sophomore year, coach Pat Murphy asked him about a pitcher's slider, and the kid responded, "It's so nasty!" Pedroia was already one of the Sun Devils' best hitters, so Murphy told him, "Never let your teammates hear you say anything like that." From that point on, the better a pitcher threw the ball, the more Pedroia said he sucked. Once, after ripping a leadoff single off Wichita State's Mike Pelfrey (now with the Mets), Pedroia shouted at the pitcher as he rounded first, "Ninety-eight coming in, 102 going out!"
Boston third baseman Mike Lowell says that when Pedroia homered to lead off the bottom of the first inning in Game 1 of last year's World Series, the Sox couldn't wait for him to return to the dugout, "because it meant he could come back and tell us how hard he hit that ball." Adds hitting coach Dave Magadan: "His confidence radiates through our clubhouse. He never really gets down on himself, and he makes everyone feel so at ease. That's rare for a young player." GROWING UP, HE FACED DOUBTS AT EVERY LEVEL: TOO SMALL, TOO SLOW, TOO BIG OF A SWING. IT'S ALMOST AS IF PEOPLE COULDN'T BELIEVE WHAT THEY WERE SEEING.
Red Sox GM Theo Epstein attributes Pedroia's attitude to the doubts he faced at every level, going back to his Little League days in Woodland, Calif., a small town about 25 minutes northwest of Sacramento. He was too small and too slow and had too big a swing. It's almost as if people couldn't believe what they were seeing: that Pedroia was always the best player on his team. "I love to read and hear that people are doubting his ability," says Epstein, "because what usuallyfollows is that he goes out and, as he says, hits some lasers."
When drafting players, the Sox target guys with the mental makeup to handle Boston. Pedroia, a second-round pick in 2004, reads what's written about him in newspapers and online, but he's hardly intimidated by media heat. "I want to know who's good at what they do and who's not," he says. And he doesn't forget a slight. During spring training in 2007, the Boston Globe quoted anonymous scouts as saying that his swing was too long, that he'd struggle in the big leagues if he didn't make adjustments. Pedroia still gets animated when the subject comes up. "All I've got to say is, a .317 season later, is my swing still too long? You look at my swing closely and you'll see, while it may be violent, it's very short to the ball."
The key to Pedroia's stroke, and the thing that sets him apart (along with his perpetually dirty uniform), is superior hand-eye coordination. "He has a way of manipulating the barrel of the bat and getting it to the baseball quickly," Magadan says. "He hits as many balls on the sweet spot as any hitter in the league." Defensively, while his range may be average, Pedroia has exceptional hands (he made just six errors last season, and his .990 fielding percentage was fourth best among AL second basemen) and a knack for making big plays—such as his diving, up-the-middle stab that saved Clay Buchholz's no-hitter last September. Pedroia was a shortstop at ASU, and Murphy believes he could play that position in the majors. "His arm wasn't a classic shortstop's arm, but he got rid of the ball in a nanosecond," Murphy says.
Pedroia capped his Rookie of the Year season by helping the Sox win their second Series in four years.
It hasn't taken much longer than that for Pedroia to find his comfort zone with the Sox. The insults about the other team's ace? That's just his way of saying, Let's not be afraid of this guy. The proclamations that he's going to hit four ropes? Translation: If I can do it, then it should be easy for studs like you. (Murphy says Pedroia once wore a sleeveless shirt in college to show off his lack of biceps.) Challenging teammates to make-believe fistfights? Let's roll, boys. Whatever it takes. "He has definitely added life to our team," Varitek says. "It's hardly ever quiet around here, that's for sure."
And while opposing players were muttering about Pedroia's cockiness this time last year, now he has earned some respect. "I think he'll always rub some people the wrong way, because that's the way the game is, and some people take themselves really seriously," Roberts says. "But for me, he's got cocky arrogance that I can't hate. First of all, he's got the game to back it up. And second, if you're around him for any time at all, you see he's not serious. He's just having fun. I didn't even know he was a baseball player when I first met him working out in Arizona, and he was jawing at me from the get-go."
Meanwhile, Millar has just received a text from Pedroia: "I'm the real 15!" Millar wore the number in Boston before Pedroia—and yes, he's laughing.
"That guy is a baseball player," Millar says. "A great defensive player. A tough out. And he has very little natural ability. When you think of the amount of swagger he's got, at 5'3", how can you not love a guy like that?"
Over in the Red Sox dugout, Pedroia is in Youkilis' face: "Dude, when I was in high school, I was really good-looking." Youkilis cracks up. "No," Pedroia says, standing up. "I'm telling you." Clearly, these are fighting words.
Every day is pretty much the same.