EVERYWHERE KEVIN YOUKILIS GOES, he hears it.
At Fenway. At road games.
On the street. In restaurants.
It can be a little overwhelming being serenaded whenever you show your face in
public, but Youk doesn't mind. "That's how you know you're doing well,"
says the 28-year-old Boston Red Sox first baseman. They chant at him because
he's an integral cog in Boston's lineup. In his second season as a regular, he
was fifth on the team in batting, and his .390 on-base percentage was 12th in
the American League. They chant at him because he's their kind of guy, cut from
the same cloth as their beloved Idiots of '04. "He's very popular because
of the way he goes about his business," says Red Sox broadcaster Jerry
Remy. "He plays hard all the time. Every at bat to him is like the last at
bat of his career. That rubs off on the fans—they appreciate that." Yes,
Youk's very down-to-earth, so when they stand three-deep on the corner of
Yawkey Way and Van Ness after the game to chant at his car as it leaves the
players' lot (as they do after most home games), they chant not at a Bentley or
an Escalade but at a sensible Volkswagen Touareg.
biggest reason they chant at him, and why he's become a folk hero as opposed to
merely a popular player, is because his name is so damn chantable. "There's
something fun about 'Yooouuuk,' " says Sox fan Rachel Friede, a 28-year-old
marketing associate who was doing it at a game in Cleveland. "It sounds
totally guttural, and it's kind of a fun thing to do." And for that
Youkilis owes a debt of thanks to a long-gone ancestor whose resourcefulness
ensured that Boston fans wanting to salute their first baseman don't have to
stand and chant Weiner!—which, except for a few hot dog vendors, no one wants
to do at a baseball game.
history reads like a Michael Chabon novel: Back in the 19th century in Romania,
males were conscripted at the age of 16. The Cossacks in the region weren't
known for their tolerance, so many Jews tried to avoid enlisting in the army.
Youk's great-great-great-grandfather—no one is sure what his first name was,
but the family name was Weiner (it's actually pronounced WINE-er)—moved to
Greece, where the family had friends. After a year or two he got homesick and
returned to Romania, but he assumed a Greek name so he could avoid the army and
jail. And with that, the Youkilis family was born.
So it turns out
that Youk—who first caught the eye of most baseball fans when Oakland A's
general manager Billy Beane called him "Euclis, the Greek God of Walks"
in Michael Lewis's 2003 best seller Moneyball—isn't Greek at all, which has
disappointed many Hellenic fans who have approached him. "It's kind of
sad," says Youk. "Greeks are very proud of their heritage."
rookie season of 2004, Boston manager Terry Francona was asked about the Greek
God of Walks label. His response was, "I've seen him in the shower, and I
wouldn't call him the Greek god of anything." It was no pedantic nod to
Youk's Romanian stock. The fact of the matter is, Youk has always looked
Coming out of
Cincinnati's Sycamore High, Youk, who then packed about 227 pounds on his
6'1" frame, was recruited by two Division I schools: Butler and Cincinnati,
which was coming off a 12-46 season. The Bearcats' second-year coach, Brian
Cleary, first saw Youk at a winter camp. "I looked at him and said, Well,
we need somebody," says Cleary. "I'd love to tell you I saw something
no one else did, but he was just better than what we had."
endorsement was enough to lure Youk to U of C, where he raked from Day One.
Surely that caught the attention of the scouts, right? When asked what he liked
about Youk, former Boston scout Matt Haas says, "At first glance, not a
lot." (Mind you, this is one of the few scouts who actually wanted the
kid.) "He was unorthodox," says Haas, who now scouts for the Arizona
Diamondbacks. "He had an extreme crouch—his thighs were almost parallel to
the ground. And he was heavier than he is now. But the more I watched him, the
more I just thought, Throw the tools out the window. This guy can play
Youk played in
the Cape Cod summer league following his junior year, finishing sixth in
batting and winning over Haas in the process. Despite his Cape performance, and
despite the fact that he was a second-team All-America as a senior, most teams
continued to overlook him. Haas persuaded the Sox to pick Youkilis in the
eighth round, to the chagrin of Beane, who'd thought he could steal him a few
rounds later. Thus began one of the most noted baseball courtships in recent
is well-documented in Moneyball, which chronicles his repeated attempts to pry
Youk from the Sox (including trying to manipulate then Expos G.M. Omar Minaya
into getting Youk for him). The book, of course, celebrated Beane—himself a
can't-miss kid who missed—as a revolutionary G.M., a radical thinker who puts
more stock in empirical evidence than in scouts' hunches or how many
traditional tools a player has. ("I don't even know if I have a tool,"
Youkilis said a few years ago.) Beane didn't care if Youk was pudgy or looked
as if he was sitting on an imaginary toilet when in the batter's box; he loved
the kid's ability to get on base. In 2003 Youk tied the modern minor league
record by reaching base safely in 71 straight games.
His cameo in
Moneyball made Youk a minor celebrity. "People see you and think you're a
movie star or something," he says. He signed plenty of books for fans and
says the experience was good for his career, but being known for walking isn't
exactly how most players want to make their name. "Kevin disliked that
Greek God of Walks stuff," says his dad, Mike. Fans actually rooted for
Youk to take pitches, as if seeing him take four balls was like watching
Nureyev perform Swan Lake. "It was frustrating to hear fans say, 'Get a
walk!' " he says. "I'll take a walk—a walk's as good as a hit—but don't
you want me to hit a home run or something?"