Pedroia's Skills, Heart Prove Bigger Than His Size
Dustin Pedroia had to excuse himself from a pack of reporters standing in front of his locker after a late September game. Apparently, after a 3-for-5 evening that included a home run, Major League Baseball's random drug testing program had come calling.
"Hit a home run, now I gotta take a drug test," Pedroia said.
As he walked away Pedroia looked down at his right bicep and flashed a sly grin. Even the most cynical baseball observer wouldn't think the Red Sox rookie second baseman, generously listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, is chemically enhanced. That night's homer, after all, was his eighth and last of the regular season.
No, Pedroia's greatest asset in a debut season in which he hit .317/.380/.442 and deftly manned second base for the American League East champions can't be found in a syringe.
His sixth inning long ball that night wasn't pure Pedroia as much as his two doubles were–one down the left-field line, the other a blooper to right. Both times the Oakland outfielder was just a little too slow getting to the ball, so Pedroia dashed around to second.
"He's 5-6, doesn't run great, not a very quick guy, just a ballplayer," said Pat Murphy, Pedroia's coach during three standout years at Arizona State.
"You can't measure those tools. He's got the sixth tool. And that's the tool of a winning player."Coaches' Favorite
Murphy first saw it when scouting Pedroia, a top-notch high school shortstop in Woodland, Calif., who didn't attract attention from pro scouts because of his size. Murphy saw a 130-pound winner.
"There was speculation from Day One that he was too small, but my staff loved him," Murphy said.
Pedroia arrived in Tempe in the fall of 2001 along with another talented shortstop, Ian Kinsler, now with the Rangers. Pedroia was listed as the starting second baseman with Kinsler at short in the fall, but by the time the season started he was the Sun Devils' shortstop.
"Guys develop at different times," Murphy said.
"You could see Ian Kinsler loved the game also, but you could see he hadn't grown into his body and his game hadn't peaked at that point. Dustin was a little more dependable."
Three years without missing a game, 185 in all, was dependable enough. Kinsler got the hint, transferring to Central Arizona Junior College after Pedroia's freshman year.
Pedroia hit .347 in his first season, earning all-Pac 10 honors, but the team lost in the NCAA regionals. So the budding star offered to give up his scholarship so the team could lure pitcher Ben Thurmond, who transferred in from Winthrop.
Pedroia, who knew Thurmond from their days on Team USA, thought an ace could lift the Sun Devils to the College World Series. But they ended up one win short, falling to Cal State Fullerton—and star closer Chad Cordero—in the 2003 super-regionals.
The team missed its goal, but it was a breakout year for Pedroia. He was Pac 10 co-player of the year, hitting .404 with 34 doubles. He struck out just 13 times in 297 at-bats.
"There were plenty of other hard-hit balls caught, too," Murphy said. "We play in a tough league. If he played in an average league he would have hit .500."
After he hit .393 as a junior, the Red Sox drafted Pedroia in the second round in 2004. There were still doubts about his size, but Pedroia had long since won over his clubhouse in Tempe.
"Nobody on his team for three years ever doubted that Dustin would play the in the big leagues," said Murphy, who insists Pedroia will be a Gold Glove shortstop someday. "Everybody believed he was a player and it was a matter of would he be an impact player?"
Pedroia advanced steadily through the minors, earning a September callup last year, though he hit just .191 in 89 at-bats. But when Mark Loretta left in free agency during the offseason, Pedroia arrived in spring training as the Red Sox' new second baseman.
He had a tough April, hitting just .182/.308/.236 and looking very much like a rookie. Still, Pedroia didn't dwell on his struggles.
"I don't really get too down if I don't get a hit in a couple at-bats," he said. "I know I'll just put a couple good at-bats together, and so I'm not worried about that."
He found his stroke at the plate in May, hitting .415/.472/.600 to earn AL rookie of the month honors and establish himself as a stalwart near the top of the Red Sox order. His average remained well north of .300 for the rest of the season.
Pedroia also has made a slew of highlight-reel plays in the field, none more significant–at least to righthander Clay Buchholz–than his diving snare of a Miguel Tejada grounder up the middle in the seventh inning of Buchholz's Sept. 1 no-hitter against the Orioles at Fenway Park.
"When I jumped up and missed that ball, I was thinking, 'Well, it's over,' and then (Pedroia) comes out of nowhere," Buchholz told reporters after the game.
The grateful rookie pitcher promised to reward Pedroia.
"I brought him some food one day," Buchholz said a few weeks later. "But it's going to be more than a one-time thing."Youthful Enthusiasm
Pedroia's eternally dirty uniform tells of his relentlessness in the field, an approach that hasn't quite rubbed off on veteran third baseman Mike Lowell.
"I'm definitely not going to dive as much as he does," Lowell said with a smile. "I tell him, 'Why do you dive for a ball up the middle when you've got a fast guy? Even if you catch the ball you're not going to throw him out. You've got to monitor your dives.'"
But Pedroia's scrappy attitude and sense of humor has made him popular in the clubhouse.
"The veterans love him," manager Terry Francona said. "It's kind of like your little brother you can pick on, but nobody else better. They have their fun with him, but they love him.
"For a fairly veteran team, it's nice to have that kind of guy around. It brings that enthusiasm, that energy every day. It's part of what makes him so special, what makes him good, is the way he goes about playing the game. It's infectious."
His height, once an impediment, helped forge that style of play. Boston infielder Alex Cora is familiar with the attitude.
"I got a brother [Joey] and he was 5-7, and he played 10 years in the big leagues," Cora said. "I know how they feel. They feel they can run into a wall and go through it. It's not a surprise."
Still, just because he has used the size to his advantage doesn't mean Pedroia can't catch some razzing for it.
"He's got a little Napoleon attitude," Lowell said with a laugh. "He likes to talk a big game. Big bark, no bite. He's a guy who's had to battle the height issue his whole career. But he's fine. He's been great for us, all kidding aside."
But the kidding has only made him stronger, since the beginning. It's the reason why Murphy maintained that Pedroia's performance will continue to improve.
"Tell him he can't do it and he'll do it," Murphy said. "There's a lot of people that doubted him and his success, and it's just a great story for all his coaches to see."Daniel Malloy is a freelance writer based in Boston.