Dividing baseball players up into types used to be easy—you had your goatee guys and your non-goatee guys. But in this age of increasing specialization and aesthetic proliferation, that work has become more difficult. You’ve got your Beardo Hunter Guys, your Orange County Tattoo Dudes, a whole grim regiment of Health Goths, a bunch of players who appear to be trying to transform themselves into tall boys of Monster Energy through various grooming and self-presentation decisions. There are a lot, and yet Dustin Pedroia has from his first moments in the Major Leagues been identifiable as not just an eternal ballplayer archetype but its apotheosis—he is an undersized screaming man, but he is also his generation’s foremost Undersized Screaming Man. On Memorial Day, he and the Red Sox called a press conference that seemed for a few hours as if it might have been intended to announce his retirement. Instead, it confirmed that Pedroia, while still incapable of playing baseball on a daily basis, is also not yet capable of giving it up. This fits, too.
“I’m at a point right now where I need some time. That’s what my status is,” Pedroia told the assembled media. He said that he was sure he wasn’t going to get another surgery on his knee, and admitted that he was unsure about whether he’d ever be able to play again. The ostensible news purpose of the press conference was to announce that Pedroia would be moved to the 60-day disabled list after the most recent setback in his ongoing recovery, but managers and GM’s and injured players don’t usually show up for those sorts of announcements. Pedroia has made it into six games this season, managing two hits and a walk in 21 plate appearances. It would be a surprise if he played in many more, but it was unsurprising in the extreme to learn that he is not yet ready to stop.
Pedroia played in just three games in 2018 after undergoing cartilage restoration surgery following the 2017 campaign; he had just one hit during a season that ended with his third World Series championship. Although the team said that Pedroia would be able to play without restriction this year, that particular front office term of art turned out to be both too optimistic and ultimately inapt. “If I play out of control and do something, I could wake up the next day and it could be bad,” Pedroia told MassLive’s Chris Cotillo back in spring training. “I know everyone thinks I’m crazy and I won’t listen to everybody, but that’s not the case. I want to make sure I’m on the field and doing all I can to help us win.” It’s a testament to what an ornery and brilliant baseball person Pedroia is that he doesn’t technically even need to be on the field to help his team win; earlier this year, Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez credited Pedroia with teaching him how to throw a slider during a dugout conversation that began with Pedroia asking, “Hey, do you want to throw a really good breaking ball?” (“I was like, ‘yeah, bro,” Rodriguez responded.) But it’s safe to assume that Pedroia would rather do that work on the field because he has always made it very clear that he would rather be on the field than anywhere else.
Right now, that isn’t possible—not on consecutive days, as Pedroia made clear at the press conference, and increasingly not at all. His knee hurts when he plays and it hurts when he doesn’t. It does not get better with rest and does not appear to be getting better, period. It’s part of every story written about Pedroia’s injury that it’s clearly very bad because Pedroia, in defiance of everything that everyone has ever observed or presumed to understand about him during his career, was actually moved to admit that he was in too much pain to play. “For him to come up to me and tell me how he felt, obviously, I know a lot of people think he’s going to push and push and push and not be smart about it,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said back in April. “Well, he understands where he’s at and how he felt.”
Pointing out that Pedroia is an irritant is both the highest compliment that can be bestowed upon him and the most obvious dig against him. Pedroia is the owner of a suite of elite baseball talents, which is the sort of thing that gets overlooked because of how dirty his uniform got and how red his face reliably became over the course of any given game during his career. He was a star everywhere he ever played, and during his peak, which stretched over a mostly healthy and mostly dominant decade between 2007 and 2016, Pedroia was one of the most valuable players in the league despite back-of-the-baseball-card numbers that look more good than great. He was an elite defender… but at second base, where brilliance is a bit harder to notice. He was a brilliant hitter… who excelled mostly at controlling the strike zone and not making outs. He won the MVP in 2008 after leading the league in hits and doubles and runs scored, and then stayed within a tick or two of that level of production for the nine more years without ever finishing higher than seventh in the voting again. This adds up to the sort of player that tends to be slightly underrated by outside observers and deliriously exalted by hometown fans, even before Pedroia’s extremely large and incredibly red personality figures into the equation.
How much that personality dictated the sort of player that Pedroia was for parts of 14 big league seasons is effectively an impossible question to answer. Nothing is falsifiable or provable, here; there’s no example of a similar player who was sedate and easygoing where Pedroia was bugfuck and crazy-eyed and riding some fit of thermonuclear redassery to the very edge of sanity. This is just how Pedroia is, and if you want to believe that he needed to be this way—to vibrate at this high a frequency, to play so angry and seem so often like a barking weirdo cop—to become a star despite normal human physical proportions you’re certainly welcome to believe that story. But some types of baseball people are just this consumed by the game and this authentic in their wild self-belief. “He has the biggest mouth and he backs it up, so anything that he says, I fully believe he can do,” Xander Bogaerts told the Boston Globe before the season as Pedroia began his comeback attempt. “If he says he’s going to fly, I think he’ll fly.” This is the effect that players like this have on the players around them, but also their bodies break just like those of normal people.
As it happens, we have a recent example of how this all might go. David Wright’s back started to go before the Mets’ retrospectively inexplicable World Series run in 2015. It was a degenerative condition, and it degenerated until Wright was in a similar position to Pedroia—owed a great deal of money on a contract that would pay him into his later 30s, trapped in a body that was damaged beyond meaningful repair, blessed and cursed with the sort of baseball player’s brain that refused to square all that with the obvious outcome it dictated. And so Wright worked out and rehabbed on empty fields in the team complex, and drilled with teenagers who might never get out of short-season ball, and showed up eight hours before games in which he could only manage a few innings of diminished play, and then just kept doing it. He rehabbed and rose through the system and at the end of a dead year and seemingly against the wishes of an ownership that didn’t want to jeopardize an ongoing insurance payday, Wright played a few innings in a meaningless game against the Marlins. He walked in his first plate appearance and fouled out behind first base in his last one, and seemed exceedingly grateful and gratified to have been able to do even that much.
It meant something to the fans that saw it, many of whom had cared a great deal about Wright for many years, but it clearly meant something different and private to Wright himself. All of which is to say that it would be unlike Dustin Pedroia to go quietly, or when it’s time, or when the indicators are all suggesting that it is time to go. He will exit screaming, at a time to be determined, but if it is say a year or two years from now—after a walk and a foul-out, or whatever else he can manage—it wouldn’t be surprising. Whenever he has even that much to give, Pedroia will go ahead and give it.