Red Sox stalwart planning to come back strong

CHANDLER, Ariz. — Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, sitting on the weight bench in the gym of his palatial home, is restless, rubbing his hands together, chugging another bottled water, keeping an eye on the latest baseball news on his big-screen TV.

He has played only three baseball games in the last 493 days entering this week, undergoing more knee surgeries than games played the last two years, but still was eagerly looking forward to another White House visit to celebrate their latest World Series championship.

Only for that trip to be postponed because of the government shutdown.

So, once again he improvises, and now has a flight Feb. 15 from Sky Harbor International Airport, arriving in Fort Myers, Fla., where every move he makes during the Red Sox’s spring-training camp will be meticulously monitored and evaluated.

There won’t be a day that goes where someone won’t ask him four simple words: “How are you feeling?”

When that time stops, only then will Pedroia know that he has convinced everyone he’s truly back from his fourth knee surgery in the last 28 months, including the complicated and extensive microfracture surgery on his left knee in October 2017, that included cartilage restoration.

“If I come back, and play the entire year,” Pedroia tells USA TODAY Sports, “it will be proudest I’ve been of anything I’ve ever done in baseball. My teammates have seen what I’ve been through. They saw me having to fly to Vail (Colo.) during the World Series just to see another doctor. They saw all my ups and downs.

“There were a lot of tough times.”

It was the first summer that Pedroia, the former MVP and three-time World Series champion, has ever been away from baseball. He got to hang with his wife, Kelli, and their three young sons, taking them to soccer practice, while watching the Red Sox games on his cell phone. He also got to experience what a 115-degree summer day feels like in Phoenix.

Now, at the age of 35, the Red Sox’s oldest-tenured player, and considered one of the greatest second basemen in franchise history, Pedroia vows to prove everyone wrong.

Once again.

“This is one baseball’s greatest stories, man,” says Milwaukee Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy, who has known Pedroia since he was 17 and was his collegiate coach at Arizona State. “This is a guy who set the standard of how the Boston Red Sox play. He’s a throwback. He’s like a modern-day Pete Rose.

“I don’t think it’s even an option for him that he’s coming. He’s coming back. And he’s going to impact the game as its highest level. Every kid in America should be watching his story because it’s as pure and genuine as anything you’ll see.”

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Pedroia, realizes there’s no guarantee he’ll return to being the same player who was a four-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner. He has had four left knee surgeries since October 2016 and never recovered after suffering cartilage damage in his left tibia and femur on April 21, 2017, when former Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado’s slide spiked the side of his surgically-repaired knee.

“It’s unfortunate it happened, but it’s baseball man,” says Pedroia, who insists he doesn’t carry a grudge. “You play second base, that’s my job. It could have happened to anybody.”

He still played 105 games in 2017 and underwent extensive knee surgery after picking the doctor who promised his quickest return, only to last just three games last season.

“He felt so bad,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “He kept saying, “I have to be here. I have to be playing. It’s on me if we don’t win the World Series.’ He takes everything so personal. It was like he was ready to blame himself.”’

Pedroia realized in August he couldn’t make it back after months of rehab and another surgery, but it didn’t stop him from sitting in on every advance scouting meeting before each series, providing daily input in every session with the coaching staff, and being everything from a coach to a psychologist to a guidance counselor during the Red Sox’s playoff run.

“He was in the middle of everything,” Cora said. “I remember one day in September we were in New York, I came in early, and somebody’s already in the batting cage. It’s Mitch [Moreland] and Pedey is talking about his approach and mechanics. I didn’t say a word. I just sat there and watched.

“Even though he wasn’t able to contribute on the field, he was doing everything possible behind closed doors.”

Says Pedroia: “I was pretty down at times during the year, really down, but guys like Brock [Holt] and Rick [Porcello] kept me picking me up when I needed it the most. It really made it easier when we traded for Ian Kinsler. It took a lot of pressure off to get back.

“Now, if we hadn’t won the World Series, it would have just crushed me. I didn’t want to live thinking about what if I could have done just one thing differently to help us win. That would have been miserable.”

He has spent the winter making sure it doesn’t happen again. He has stayed home the entire time. Five days a week, four hours a day, he has been in his home gym, increasing his flexibility, losing seven pounds to ease stress on his knee, and taking thousands of rounds of batting practice. The highlight was Jan. 14 when he began running for the first time in his backyard. He was so ecstatic that he blasted the video to virtually every contact on his cell phone.

“He keeps sending me all of these texts and videos,” Cora says. “I finally said, “Pedey, I don’t want to see any more videos. No videos! I want him to be patient.

“But you know Pedey, he’s ready to shock the world.”

Pedroia, despite the confidence and braggadocio that has defined his career, is well-aware of the odds. He knew he should have never attempted to return so quickly. If he had to do it over, he says, he never would have undergone the intensive surgery in the first place, and simply rested. For the first time, he’s listening to his body.

“To have part of a dead body and plug it into mine,” Pedroia says, “and then tell me in six months I’m supposed to play against the best baseball players in the world. It was unrealistic. At some point, you’ve got to let your body heal.

“Right now, I’m really confident, but you can only simulate so much, you know. The last step left is to go out and play. If I play one game, and I’m fine, and then play two games in a row without pain, then I’ll be who I’ve been.

“I’m trying to overcome a lot and prove people wrong at the same time.”

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Pedroia, who has his World Series rings displayed in his bedroom, his 2008 American League MVP and 2007 AL Rookie of the Year plaques in his gym, and the World Series championship season years painted on the wall above his batting cage, still has one award he has never achieved.

Really, he never wanted it until now:

The Comeback Player of the Year award.

“What’s cool is that my kids have seen what I’ve gone through the last year and a half,” Pedroia says. “I’m always telling that when stuff isn’t going well, you just got to push through and find a way to turn it around. So I’ve got to practice what I preach.

“I can’t wait to go out there and play, have them see me play, knowing what I’ve been saying all along is right.”

The Red Sox aren’t sure what to expect, but showed their confidence in Pedroia by not pursuing another second baseman. They let Kinsler, acquired at last year’s trade deadline, leave for the San Diego Padres without an offer. The plan is for Pedroia to be their everyday second baseman, only this time, providing more rest with infielders Brock Holt, Eduardo Nunez and Tzu-Wei Lin on the roster.

“We don’t expect him to be the 162-game player anymore,” Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski says, “but if he can be a 120-to-135-game player, we will be thrilled. We would be absolutely thrilled.

“If anybody can do it, it’s Pedey. He’s so dedicated, conscious and driven. He’s our Mr. Red Sox. He deserves the opportunity, and we think he’ll do it. The doctors think he’ll do it. But we really don’t know unless he does it day-in and day-out.”

Pedroia, who has played at least 154 games five times and started 51 consecutive postseason games until last year, has been a fixture in the Red Sox lineup since 2006. Yet, he has now been on the DL as many times in the last two years as he had during his entire career. There are questions whether the Red Sox can count on him playing for the duration of his contract, which still has $40 million remaining through 2021.

Pedroia, 36 in August, insists he hasn’t begun thinking of the end. He refuses to even utter the word, saying “how can you retire when I’m not working. I’m just playing a game I love.”

The way he views it, he has proven everyone wrong his whole life, so why stop now?

When Pedroia tried to return last summer, and his doctor tried to encourage him, saying it might be possible he could hit .293 again as he did in 2017, Pedroia scolded him.

“’Doc, I can .293 on one leg right now,'” Pedroia told him. “’Give me two knees, I’ll hit .393 and make you world-renowned.’

“I said to him, ‘Hypothetically, what if someone tore the ulnar nerve in their thumb completely off the bone on opening day [2013]. Is it possible to play 176 baseball games in a season, swing a bat every day and catch every ball?’ He says, ‘No, that’s not possible at all.’

“I told him, ‘Well, I did it! So don’t tell me I can’t do this!’ “

So, go ahead and doubt Pedroia. He dares you. Just brace yourself for the consequences.

“You watch,” Murphy says, “he’ll be out there, impacting the game at its highest level like he’s always done. He’s Dustin Pedroia. He’s not close to being done.

“This will be just another chapter of his legacy.”

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @BNightengale


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