Call Me Back When It’s Time

On Sunday afternoon, as England and Italy struggled through soccer futility, a piece of my baseball history slipped into the past.

Kevin Youkilis went 2 for 4 against Atlanta, including an RBI triple in the seventh inning that scored Adrian Gonzalez. Standing on third, Youkilis was taken out of the game, replaced by Nick Punto.

The Fenway Park crowd sensed that this could be it, standing and cheering much louder than the final run in a 9-4 win usually merits. Youkilis tipped his cap to the fans before hugging a handful of Sox players outside the dugout, then gave a curtain call after Boston manager Bobby Valentine basically demanded he climb the dugout steps one last time.

A few hours later, Youkilis was a member of the Chicago White Sox.

I don’t exactly need to stress how weird Sunday afternoon was. Never before had Nick Punto pinch running meant so much to a franchise on a Sunday afternoon in June. Everyone seemed to know what it meant, right away. Youkilis got a standing ovation prior to his first at bat of the day. It was goodbyes all around.

Trading Youkilis makes sense in a number of ways. For one, there is no room on the infield for him anymore. Gonzalez, although having a bit of a down year, has been excellent defensively. He’s not going anywhere. Youkilis is definitely not an option at short, and Dustin Pedroia has second base locked up.

Then there’s Will Middlebrooks, who has played 41 games on the infield — most of them at third — and has torn the cover off the ball at the plate thus far. Middlebrooks is the future, an exciting future Red Sox fans are eager to get underway with mounting injuries limiting the offense and the team hovering around .500.

Smart writers have noted that Middlebrooks is garnering the same excitement Youkilis did when he was a 24-year-old prospect. WMB, with his strong glove and ridiculous offensive numbers early in his career, has made the injury-prone Youkilis expendable. The downright inevitability of moving Youkilis makes this easier to take, especially with WMB getting armed at third. It had to happen, but that doesn’t mean the move is any less significant.

It’s not about the numbers for me, I understand what we’re getting and what we’re losing statistically. What I’m losing, though, as a fan, is a big part of my team.

David Ortiz is now the only remaining Red Sox player from the 2004 World Series team. This only means something to people who like the Red Sox or people who enjoy retweeting quick baseball statistics to no one. Once Papi retires or moves on, that’s it. My team is gone.

There’s a sadness attached to that thought, but also something else I’m just beginning to understand. That team, and it’s 2007 successors, accomplished something. Something real. Two World Series championships for a small group of players that created a tidal wave of change within the Red Sox organization.

As much as I’m sad to see Youkilis switching red socks for white, I’m okay with it. I got to see Youkilis play at his peak with two great teams that won it all. It’s time to move on, to put that in the past and think fondly of it between the games played in the present.

Thoughts like this are completely foreign in the dialogue of Buffalo sports, and I think that’s quite telling (and also incredibly, profoundly depressing). The absence of accomplishment is enough to make even the most upbeat of Buffalo sports fans into a raving pile of crazy. A former player accomplishing anything without us is a local tragedy, and yet someone born within 90 miles of downtown Buffalo accomplishing anything is a two-reporter story on the local news. No in between.

The biggest thing Youk and Co. did in Boston was get rid of that cloud of nonsense hanging over the baseball team. Now players can leave “when it’s time” and get cheered upon return. New players can come up through the system and not be viewed as saviors, and lamenting the closing window of opportunity for fading stars is not an annual event. Despite the chicken and hops fiasco of last season, it’s still a good place to be.

Of course, it takes a championship to get there. Darn. Easier said than done. Fans in Buffalo will continue to sulk over July 1, 2007 and Rory Fitzpatrick and all those things we talk about after a big loss and one too many drinks.

Youkilis and Ortiz are reminders that it is possible, though. Ortiz will play on until he, too, becomes a part of the past for me. Youkilis may find his game again on the South Side. I definitely hope he does. That’s the nice thing about winning: When it finally happens, you don’t mind seeing the people you like do it without you.