There’s an easy-to-reach joke when someone really old dies. “Oh he died years ago, he just fell down yesterday.” That’s basically how it feels with Dustin Pedroia announcing his retirement today. He’s only played nine games in the past three seasons, so his retirement basically announced him.
Pedroia will take a pretty good career to the beach chair with him. He was not an all-time great, but not as far away as you might think. He’s only one of 25 players in MLB history to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP trophies, and most of the names on that list aren’t merely Hall of Famers, but legends of the game. And sure, a lot of jokes have been written about Pedroia’s MVP in 2008, when he was the victim of just an exceptionally weak chase in the American League that year. Baseball-Reference had Nick Markakis as the only player to have a higher WAR than him. FanGraphs had Grady Sizemore, and the combination of those two let you know just what kind of weak field came up that year. In either case, Pedroia was definitely among the best players in the AL at the time, and his winning the award was more than reasonable.
Pedroia had seasons better than or equal to his MVP season, which are easily forgotten among the noise surrounding that 2008 campaign. In 2011 he was worth 8.4 fWAR, but wasn’t even the best player on his team thanks to Jacoby Ellsbury’s celestial production with both bat and glove. And both lost out on MVP to Justin Verlander. Pedroia was nearly as good for the champion Red Sox in 2013, which was something of a greater-than-the-sum collection of players.
That was the thing about Pedroia, he was never the best player on his team. He might have had the best season in 2008, but the Sox were still built on David Ortiz who had injury problems that year.
With Pedroia, it was the symbolism attached to him by Boston that made him bigger than he was. That 2008 season was the one where Manny Ramirez, doing some beta-testing for James Harden’s soft rebellion against his own team, had to be shuttled to the Dodgers just to be rid of the headache. Ramirez’s relationship with the Red Sox and its fans was always up and down, given his sheer amount of talent, impact, and importance to the 2004 team, and contrasted by his sometimes lopsided relationship with “trying.” At least that was the story.
Pedroia never gave off any of that. He was the undersized, scrappy, go-hard underdog who had to throw every ounce of his being into his play. The embodiment of the character with which Boston has always viewed itself. Even Pedroia’s swing looked like it involved every sinew and muscle in his body, and the sheer force of it might have been enough to knock him over. He was the “dirt-dog,” the pig-pen, showing up at the party with stains on his hoodie to contrast the overstuffed noblesse of the city’s constant enemies, New York and the Yankees. They had A-Rod and Jeter at their A-list parties and five-star restaurants. The Sox had Pedroia double-fisting Buds at the local dive before throwing up on the dartboard. And then going 2-for-4 the next night. And whereas Manny acted and talked his way out of town, Pedroia’s commitment to fans and city was never questioned.
It’s how the city has seen itself through all of its teams. Brad Marchand is worshipped as the defiance of the city, the walking middle finger/snot wiped on the hand towels, meanwhile David Pastrnak is the superior player and Patrice Bergeron the quiet metronome to which the whole organization has been set for years. It’s Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola. We could do this for hours going back through the decades with any Boston team. Other players were better, but Boston didn’t want to see themselves in them. They did with Pedroia. It’s not hard to leap to sordid reasons why.
You could say it was the same full-throated, life-depends-on-it effort that eventually led to Pedroia’s steep decline. Pedroia only managed more than 135 games once after that 2013 season, as his body kept breaking down. His age-32 season was his last productive one, and then he simply couldn’t make the bell anymore. But there’s poetry to be found in a player who simply played himself into the dirt from which it was thought he came. Better to burn out and all that. Someone who played as if they were a fan the team just threw a jersey on and chucked out onto the field, no matter the consequences.
Pedroia wasn’t really ever the best player on his team. He won’t even go down as the best second baseman in team history (Bobby Doerr will take that honor). Ortiz, Ramirez, Lester, Ellsbury all took their turns. But he spoke to something in the Boston psyche in a way the others didn’t. Some of it good, some of it bad. But that’s not Pedroia’s fault, and some players just mean more to a certain place and time than people on the outside can understand.