The Kevin Youkilis trade was at once devastating and relieving. A breath of fresh air and the first death knell for an era.
To be clear, the trade of Kevin Youkilis does not end an era. He was with the 2004 team, but only in a peripheral role, and David Ortiz certainly remains. Instead, he was the first man in the youth movement--the one that between Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, and the returns from the Hanley Ramirez trade proved so successful in making the Red Sox more than a one-and-done phenomenon.
And now, to see him leaving the team because he is old, and broken, and "done" to quote the harsher critics is a moment that would be soul crushing if it did not come with the benefit of the arrival of a new era in Will Middlebrooks.
But this is not about Will Middlebrooks--wonderful and exciting though he may be. It's about Kevin Youkilis, and what he meant to the fans and the team.
Kevin Youkilis was never the most personable player in the world. A professional with a bit of a hard streak, Youkilis was about performance. He held himself to a high standard, and when he failed to live up to it, he let it show. It was that sort of openness that rubbed some of his teammates the wrong way--as was the case with Manny Ramirez before his public break with the organization--and put so many Sox fans so firmly in his corner. This town does not always react well to the quiet performer, as seen in the likes of J.D. Drew in his best years. But when a player visibly suffers with them after his own failures--even if it is for different reasons--they respect and appreciate that.
Of course, even the most emotional of player cannot survive in Boston without producing, and Youkilis did plenty of that. From the days of 2007 where he formed a potent leadoff combo with Dustin Pedroia, up until 2010, when he was truly the heart of the Red Sox' lineup, swinging a tremendous bat in a time when the Sox were in desperate need of a replacement for Manny Ramirez and, at times, even David Ortiz. From 2008 to 2010, Kevin Youkilis had the second best bat in the major leagues, tied with Joey Votto and trailing only Albert Pujols. He was, if only for three years, one of the greats--whether the league at large truly recognized it or not.
Looking at that peak, however, one has to wonder why it was so short. Yes, some players do just flair out quickly, but given how his career progressed, one is made to wonder. In 2009, with Victor Martinez so often taking up first, Kevin Youkilis began a part-time shift to third. While Adrian Beltre would push him firmly back to first during his amazing 2010, the arrival of Adrian Gonzalez made the move all-but-permanent, and that's when Youkilis started to go downhill. The question must be asked: if the Red Sox had never made the trade, and Youkilis had never been exposed to the more taxing requirements of third base, would he have broken down the way he did? Or would he be headed to the All-Star game once again representing the Red Sox in 2012? It's a hypothetical we will never know the answer to, and perhaps that is for the better.
When a player comes up through the farm system and proves to be a true star at the top levels, we fans hope for the fairytale ending. We hope they will stay with the team for their whole career, leaving with dignity and retiring at, if not the top of their game, then a reasonable approximation of it. Unfortunately, that is an honor reserved for a very few, very lucky individuals. For so many others, especially those who play for demanding teams like the Red Sox, the end instead comes like this, with insufficient production necessitating a replacement a quick departure, often for a far smaller return than a player of their stature deserves.
The hope is that, in a few years, when the clouding influence of immediate concerns has diminished with time, the fans who once chanted "Yooooooouk" will look back and reminisce about the Greek God of Walks, his kooky batting stance, and all that he meant to the team in the years leading up to his decline. Because whether we fully appreciate them or not during their heights, players like Kevin Youkilis are few and far between, and even if the team is best served at the moment by having Will Middlebrooks in the lineeup everyday, the fans will sorely miss the likes of Youkilis, be it for his current abilities or the memories of what he brought in the past.