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NOBODY WANTS to talk about it out loud. Oh, sure, speaking strictly on background and not for attribution, baseball insiders are willing to fill my notebook with educated guesses and opinions, to let loose like Holbrook in the parking garage. But ask someone to go on the record about an issue this sensitive, and you can forget about it. Nobody wanted to tell me how tall Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia really is.
He's not 5'9". We can start there. The Red Sox officially list Pedroia at 5'9", but he's probably not 5'8" or 5'7" either. When one of my anonymous sources suggested that Pedroia is shorter than the famously diminutive Fred Patek—who at 5'5" is the shortest man to play everyday baseball in the last 40 or so years—I thought the source was getting a bit carried away. But Peep Throat was pretty insistent, saying, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you how short."
As a lifelong short guy myself, I wish the Red Sox and everyone else would celebrate Pedroia's proportions, and not just because of his 6-for-11, two-home-run outburst in the first three games of the ALCS (page 38). He's a powerful offensive player, an action-figure idol for all those kids who hear in class that they could play handball against the curb and must look up to look down. This year Pedroia hit .326, cracked 17 homers, stole 20 bases while getting caught once, and scored a league-leading 118 runs. He was the AL's Rookie of the Year last year, and there's a good chance he'll be this season's MVP.
But this issue, as most things are, is bigger than Pedroia. Baseball, like O. Henry, can tell a short story. In the 1970s it had Patek, of course, as well as Joe Morgan (5'7") with his famous elbow flap, Larvell (Sugar Bear) Blanks (5'8"), Glenn Hubbard (5'7") and Walt (No Neck) Williams, who, to be fair, would have been two or three inches taller than his listed 5'6" had it not been for the aforementioned lack of neck. And before them it had Scooter Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese. The great thing about those players was that they did not hide from their lack of height. They embraced it. "I never saw my size as a disadvantage," says Hall of Famer Morgan, probably the greatest short player in history. "It was the opposite. I thought it made people underestimate me."
Baseball people have not exactly underestimated Pedroia—he was, after all, a second-round pick in 2004 who signed for more than a half-million dollars, and he played in only 270 minor league games before getting called up for good—but they certainly made assumptions about him. When you're small, you can be only one kind of player—scrappy—and the label is hard to shake. "He's a little scrappy dude," Rays statuesque 6'4" starter James Shields told the St. Petersburg Times before the ALCS. "He's a little guy, but he's got a big heart."
Scrappy is a great and knotty baseball word that goes back to the late 19th century. It might have originated with the 1880s ballplayer John (Scrappy) Carroll. Not much is known about Scrappy Carroll, except that he was listed at 5'7" and hit .171 in his brief career. After him, small players who mostly could not hit would forever be called scrappy. Billy Martin was the essence of scrappy, hitting .257 for his career and punching out anyone who mentioned it. Diamondbacks shortstop David Eckstein (5'6") hits for a better average than most scrappers (.284), but he has the rest of the act down—low strikeouts, no power, lots of sacrifice bunts and on every grounder he fields, he looks as if he'll throw his arm out trying to get the ball to first. Mark Lemke (5'9") was a second baseman for the Braves who gained brief fame for hitting .417 with three triples in his first World Series, in 1991. But being scrappy, Lemke hit .238 with zero triples or homers in his other three Series.
The thing is, Pedroia is no more scrappy than he is 5'9". He led the majors in hits (213) and doubles (54). To focus on Pedroia's hustle, his will, his intensity, his pluck, his feistiness, his grit, his moxie, his fighting spirit—in short, his presumed scrappiness—is to miss the point. "He plays like he's Frank Howard," says Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who is also not 5'9" and is the closest thing to a scrappy baseball executive. "Look, it isn't about trying harder," Moore explains. "People at the local Wal-Mart will come out and have a desire to play. You have to have great ability to play this game. Dustin has great ability."
In fact, Pedroia seems to have created his own archetype, the allegedly scrappy guy who plays as if he's 6'7". For a while now there has been a war raging between baseball men who talk about the value of the scrapper ("Eckstein has one extraordinary tool—his brain," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia) and statistical analysts who point out inconvenient numbers (Eckstein has a lifetime .361 slugging percentage, which is dreadful). Pedroia bridges the gap between the scrappers and the sluggers. He does all those things managers, executives and fans love—competes hard every day, gives you good at bats, gets the uniform dirty, comes through in the clutch and plays with that arrogance that scouts admire. He also does a lot of things that show up in the stats: He gets on base, hits with some power, scores runs and so on. That pair of home runs he hit in Game 2 against the Rays last Saturday? They equaled Eckstein's total for all of 2008.
So there is no need to protect Pedroia, to nervously deflect the question or go off the record when a guy like me—a guy who is not 5'9" and who has seen the top of Pedroia's head—asks about the man's height. Pedroia, who has been listed as 5'9" going back to his days at Arizona State, is no more helpful. If you ask how tall he is, he'll smile and say, "How tall do you think I am?"
The correct answer is, he's as tall as he needs to be. And that's on the record.