By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
There was a time Dustin Pedroia could have made a legitimate claim to be the most popular athlete in Boston.
It’s revisionist history to say it’s always been Tom Brady. A decade ago, the current Tampa Bay signal caller had unfortunate hair, a tender knee, and plenty of people wondering if there was a “Curse of Gisele.” The gaudy stats came easy. Lombardi Trophies? Not so much. There were mountains to climb before Brady truly leapt into the realm of the gods. It’s just hard to remember a time when that wasn’t the case.
Around the same period, the Celtics’ Big Three brought a title to Causeway Street for the first time since basketball shorts ended above the knees. But not one of the Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen triumvirate (nor Rajon Rondo later) stood head and shoulders above his famous teammates.
The Bruins authored a stirring run to the Stanley Cup in 2011, but even that came on the heels of epic playoff disappointments in 2009 (Hurricanes) and 2010 (Flyers).
What about David Ortiz? The franchise icon was in the midst of a two-plus year stretch when a torn tendon sheath in his wrist sent his performance spiraling. From March 2008 to April 2010, Big Papi was a .244 hitter who many thought should hang it up.
At the time, Pedroia took to the mic to defend his teammate:
“David’s fine … it happens to everybody,” Pedroia said. “He’s had 60 at-bats. A couple of years ago, I had 60 at-bats, and I was hitting .170, and everyone was ready to kill me, too. And what happened? Laser show.”
In the early days of Twitter, the affable Pedroia had spun a new hashtag. The candor that one day would fuel media criticism was just part of his remarkable magnetism, with a “dirt dog” mentality and brash confidence that stirred the senses of the city’s rooters.
The second baseman routinely had one of the best-selling jerseys in all of baseball. A quick Internet search shows him as the top Red Sox player on the list (No. 8) in 2010. Even when Ortiz resumed launching balls over the Monster as the beaming face of the “our f***ing city” champs in 2013, Pedroia still clocked in at No. 2 league-wide.
At a time when Boston sports teams were expected to keep heaping trophies atop the pile, Pedroia was more than just clever quips and moving merchandise. He brought it on the field. He was the hotshot Rookie of the Year who took Jeff Francis deep on the first pitch of the World Series. He’s one of 11 Red Sox to win the MVP – a generational Fred Lynn – a star whose career might’ve turned out better but was so, so good at its peak.
Difference is, while Lynn was the sun-kissed California prospect fans hoped could take the Sox to the promised land, Pedroia’s success begged New Englanders to dream about what it might be like for one of them – a 5-foot-9 (maybe) guy with thinning follicles beneath his red and navy cap – to be planted squarely in it.
And that’s part of the reason Pedroia’s status in the Pantheon of the city’s sports heroes has eroded. Over the course of a decade between Patriots Super Bowl wins from 2005-2014, the Red Sox were the only Boston franchise to pull down multiple championships. Fans got used to the promised land. Hunger was replaced by apathy. When a couple of Sox teams finished in last place, it was clear the organization, too, didn’t have the same commitment to grinding it out as their star player did.
And then, he got hurt.
“I never took one play off,” he said Monday. “From Little League, on.”
If not for his ruthless pursuit to get back into the lineup when injuries took hold, Pedroia would’ve finished with a .300 career average. How significant is that? Before his retirement, he was 10th among active players in batting average – a tick behind current standouts like Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, who haven’t yet felt the effects of all the years and the playoff games (at least in Mookie’s case) piling up.
Nearly eight years since he signed a contract extension to remain the face of the team into the 2020s, and almost five since his last truly great season, recollections of Pedroia’s exemplary peak may have dulled at the edges. But the opinions – aided by more recent off-field developments – haven’t.
“People are treating him like he’s one of the greatest players in franchise history or an overrated bum,” noted Matt McCarthy of the Hardcore Baseball podcast. “In truth, he was actually somewhere in between. He was really, really good.”
On a video call beamed to snowy New England – but far from the familiar February Fort Myers sun – Pedroia called it a day and jogged the collective memories of fans and media, who gushed over the moments that once made the diminutive second baseman the unexpected king of the Boston sports mountain.
“It’s like people forgot what a great player he was.”
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can find him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.