A few years ago I happened to be in South Dakota, and I made a new friend in Rapid City. He took me to see two nearby sculptures. One was Mount Rushmore, a tribute to four presidents. The other was the Crazy Horse Memorial, which has been under construction since 1948. It is over half finished.
My new friend told me he had never visited New England. I told him we used to have the Old Man of the Mountain, but he is no more, and the Presidential Range doesn’t have any stone faces. I urged him to come anyway and said I would think of something.
He called me in April. He and his two grown sons were planning a trip to Boston and did I have any suggestions. “Do you like baseball?” I asked. “We sure do,” he answered. And so, just recently, the four of us spent a perfect Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park, watching the Red Sox beat the Braves. So far as I know the Braves, despite their name, have no connection to American Indians. And Jacoby Ellsbury, who does (he’s Navajo on his mother’s side), is out with an injury.
My friend told me not to worry. South Dakota has no shortage of Native American culture, but it is extremely deficient when it comes to baseball. They do have the Sioux Falls Pheasants (formerly called the “Canaries”), but they aren’t even affiliated with major league baseball.
We met at Fenway Park and, as luck would have it, they’re Red Sox fans. David Ortiz had the day off, alas, but Kevin Youkilis, the other remaining member of the 2004 championship team, was in the lineup. There he was at third base, practically right in front of us.
He played flawlessly in the field, then came up in the seventh inning with the Sox ahead and a man on base. “Youk,” “Youk” the fans cried. We all knew that this was probably his last at-bat as a member of the team. He’s 33 and, unlike Ortiz (who is even older), not having a very good year. Will Middlebrooks, who is all of 23, is taking over at third.
The pitch came in, I don’t know what it was. A fast ball? A curve? A slider? A cutter? What’s a cutter? Whatever it was, he hit it hard and straight and true, on a line to left center field.
Two outfielders converged, but neither one caught it. The baseball gods were smiling as Youk steamed from second to third, straight at us. The throw went from the outfielder to the cutoff man and from him to the third baseman. The ball and the runner arrived together, but Youk slid under the tag, safe. A triple.
In came a pinch-runner, and Youkilis headed for the dugout. Before he got there, teammates came onto the field, grappling for a chance to hug their soon-to-be-gone teammate. Youkilis doffed his cap – what other sport pays so much attention to that simple act? – then disappeared from view. The four of us, and everyone else in the park, kept shouting “Youk,” and out he came out for a cap-tipping encore. Then he was gone, a simple change of apparel, from red sox to white – and a lot closer to South Dakota.
Like Ted Williams (who never tipped his cap), Youkilis is known for getting a lot of bases on balls. The book Moneyball gave him a nickname – “the Greek god of walks.” There’s only one problem. It is true that his ancestors moved from Romania to Greece a long time ago, but they didn’t stay long and their name wasn’t originally Youkilis, it was Weiner. As my grandson reminded me after the trade, “Now the Red Sox don’t have any Jewish players.”