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Kevin Youkilis: The Man We Knew, Respected And Won't Forget

Kevin Youkilis will be remembered for many things, like his wacky batting stance and trademark goatee, but above all else, Youk will be remembered for being a top tier competitor who put his team, the Boston Red Sox, above himself.

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We will always remember his quirky and peculiar batting stance. We will never forget his nappy and woolly goatee.

On the outside, Kevin Youkilis had many characteristics that set him apart from the average Major League Baseball player. But it's what was on the inside that put him in a league of his own: A fierce competitor with the desire to always come out on top.

Whether he was arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire on any given night, screaming at the top of his lungs after launching a fierce double off the opposing pitcher, or shaking a bottle of champagne until the tasty beverage exploded on his Boston Red Sox teammates, the one thing we will never deny Youkilis of was his desire to always give 100 percent.

Let's be honest, in Boston, isn't that all we ask from our players?

This past Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park, the inevitable happened. The Faithful said goodbye to a man who wore his heart on his sleeve and his emotions on every inch of his filthy uniform. He knew the end was near. We all did. But the puppet master in the eighth inning, Bobby Valentine, pulled his magic strings in the form of pinch runner Nick Punto and gave 37,585 fans their moment to say thank you.

After driving in Adrian Gonzalez with an RBI triple, Punto may as well have handed Youkilis his airline ticket to O'Hare as he replaced the 33-year-old on third base. Jogging off the field to a standing ovation, Youlilis acknowledged the crowd with a blown kiss and left the city of Boston with a new heartfelt sports moment and a lasting image to cherish.

Just minutes later, Cody Ross told Dave O'Brien on the WEEI Red Sox Postgame Show that before Youkilis returned to the dugout, Bobby Valentine had informed the bench, "that was it for Youkilis." Ross then added that the dugout was an emotional mess as they bid farewell to a man who had given every ounce of his being to the Red Sox for the past eight and a half years. Love him or hate him, the truth remained... Youk was a real Red Sox.

"It's tough because I know how hard he's played and he's given everything he has every time he put on the Red Sox uniform," said Dustin Pedroia after the Red Sox victory over the Braves on Sunday. "He's a great player and we've all seen what he's done here."

"I know much he means to the city," Ross added from the clubhouse. "He was a great teammate and he'll be missed."

Having arrived the same way he departed, with uncertainty, Youkilis never backed down from what he believed in. Whether it was playing on a Jewish holiday when other players with the same religious beliefs chose to sit, or getting sent down to Triple-A Pawtucket four times in 2004 against his will.

Terry Francona told me in 2006, "Every time I had to send Youk down to Pawtucket it was a tough conversation because I knew he wanted to stay with the club. But I knew in my heart if this kid didn't get his at-bats, he wouldn't develop. He knew it was not only best for the team, but it was best for him as a player."

Unlike some of his predecessors, Youkilis was lucky he made a clean break. After all, departures from Boston aren't always pretty. You know what they say, "nothing good ever ends well or it wouldn't have ended at all." Well if history continued to repeat itself, that phrase may as well be carved in stone on Yawkee Way next to the El Tiante stand. Grab a Cuban sandwich made by fan-favorite Luis Tiant and remember that things haven't always been handled properly by the men upstairs.

Need examples?

Youk wasn't stalked and followed to strip clubs by the GM at the time, Dan Duquette, and run out of town like Mo Vaughn in 1998. He didn't pout, bench himself and disengage during a key series at Yankee Stadium like Nomar Garciaparra in 2004. He didn't randomly refuse to play once a week with a lame excuse or false injury like Manny Ramirez. And he certainly wasn't stabbed in the back, sold out, emotionally beaten and publicly humiliated like Francona, the only big league manager he knew.

Nope. This was shockingly as clean of a break as we've seen in years here in Boston. All things compared, it was as if I knew my boyfriend was cheating on me with a younger and hotter woman yet I stuck around with a smile on my face to tip her off on how to make it work. Imagine that?

Well Youkilis took a page out of that book by spending his last few weeks in Boston grooming his replacement, the future guardian of the hot corner and one of the most explosive, talented young players we've seen come through the Red Sox' system, Will Middlebrooks. And unlike Johnny Damon and Pedro Martinez, Youkilis didn't beg to stay. He knew the youth was the future here and his services were soon-to-be a thing of the past. He swallowed his pill like a man, accepted his demotion, and made the best of what must have been a vexatious and uncomfortable situation. In the end, he put the Red Sox first.

"I'm still here. I'm not dead," Youkils told reporters when he was asked what his memories were of Boston.

In terms of memories, getting backhanded in the face by Manny in 2008 might be one that resonates the most, at least for me. Although it may not be the greatest baseball-related moment - and Youkilis leaves us with many - it's one that truly signifies Youk's hard-nosed persona and team-first attitude.

In June of 2008, with the aura of the 2007 World Series trophy still lingering in Kenmore Square, the Tampa Bay Rays -- who would later vie for the trophy with the Phillies that October -- found themselves in a new heated rivalry in Boston. In the second inning, James Shields drilled Sox' outfielder Coco Crisp resulting in a benches-clearing scuffle. The always entertaining "bullpen sprint to the battle" apparently reached the brawl faster than Ramirez who had a much shorter jog from the dugout. Although Youkilis was on the receiving end of the slap with Ramirez, it was his "get your butt out there and defend your team" character that showcased his estimable "grit and balls" attitude, to take a slogan from the Celtics. Not sure about you, but that's the kind of guy I want on my team.

On July 16, the Faithful will have another chance to remind Youkilis how much he meant to the Red Sox organization when he returns to Fenway Park as a member of the Chicago White Sox for a four-game series. And let me tell you one thing about Red Sox fans, they know how to throw a good welcome home party. They applauded Vaughn when he returned with the Anaheim Angels. They forgave Nomar for his lack of dedication and responsibility when he stepped into the batters box as an Oakland Athletic. They showed respect to a beardless and clean-cut Damon even though he was wearing Boston's most despised rival uniform. And they even cheered for the aloof Manny when he came to town with the Dodgers.

"On one hand, it was probably time for him to go," said Francona on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball telecast just a few hours after the trade became official. "But saying that, the White Sox are going to get more from Kevin Youkilis than the Red Sox did. If Youk is healthy, he grinds out at-bats as good as anyone in baseball, and you can hit him second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth... He hits left-handers. He hits right-handers. It's a big pick up for the White Sox who have gotten no production out of third base."

Tito couldn't have said it better. The only thing he left out... the White Sox are getting a good man.

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