For Kevin Youkilis, the tension between his career and family life had reached critical mass in the 2013 season. The 34-year-old felt that it was time for him to play close to home or not at all; if that meant no more baseball, so be it. And so, naturally, Youkilis ended up signing a one-year, $4 million deal (with another $1 million in potential incentives) to play for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan.
Wait -- what?
Certainly, the scenario sounds counterintuitive. A destination such as Cleveland or New York or Tampa Bay or Kansas City -- where teams had expressed interest in Youkilis' services for the 2014 season -- would have been far closer to the corner infielder's Bay Area home than, say, Japan. So how to explain this outcome for the player who spent parts of 10 years in the big leagues, the first eight and a half with the Red Sox?
His outlook was shaped starting with a day that proved one of the most memorable of an improbable major league career. On June 24, 2012, Youkilis was traded by the Red Sox to the White Sox. He was pulled in the seventh inning of that contest against the Braves following a triple; with word of his departure from Boston circulating through Fenway Park, the three-time All-Star was saluted with a powerful and sustained ovation as he walked off the field and into the home dugout in Boston for the last time.
"That last game, when I look back and somebody pulled up a video one time, it gave me goose bumps to realize how amazing that day was. The fans didn't know I was going to be traded, then the next second being traded, it was amazing -- it was an amazing sendoff," said Youkilis. "I think some of the frustrations of off-the-field, at-the-field things I was going through that year, kind of took away [from it], and it took me about a year to realize how special that moment was. There still was animosity there, some of the things that happened that year, but finally it hit me -- wow, that was probably one of the coolest sendoffs that anyone could ask for."
He appreciates it with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time, Youkilis was shaken by being dealt to the White Sox, for reasons that had nothing to do with the team for whom he enjoyed playing. His wife was nearly seven months pregnant; going to Chicago instead of the Dodgers (a team that had been in the mix for his services) meant that he would barely see his family again before the pregnancy.
(Footnote: It was at the time that the Dodgers and Red Sox talked about Youkilis that Los Angeles made clear its interest in acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, thus laying the groundwork for the payroll-shedding blockbuster between the Sox and Dodgers two months after Youkilis was dealt.)
"The moment [Red Sox GM Ben Cherington] told me I was going to Chicago, I was really upset. We were hoping it would be a California team. There were California teams in the picture. I was pretty upset," said Youkilis. "It wasn't anything to do with the Chicago White Sox. It actually turned out to be a great experience on that team with Robin Ventura, Jake Peavy, Adam Dunn and some of the other guys. We had a blast and it was a great transition, but I knew going to Chicago was going to be the toughest experience for me because I basically got traded, we were on the road in Minnesota and I think New York, and when we came back, my wife and kids came to see me for a week. That was the week, I think, that I won AL Player of the Week. Then I knew I wasn't going to see them until my wife delivered.
"That was probably, leaving Boston was tough and a lot of emotions, but that emotion alone was probably the hardest thing for me -- knowing I wasn't going to see my wife or be able to help her. She couldn't travel anymore, so I didn't see her for two months. Two months later, I come home on an off-day, I see my wife as big as big can be. The next day we decided to induce and I took those three days to be with my son and then didn't see him again for another month. That was probably the hardest experience of my life. My family is everything to me. I would give up baseball for my family if I had to."
That realization was cemented over the course of the 2013 season. Youkilis, a free agent after 2012, signed a one-year, $12 million deal to be a corner infielder (primarily a third baseman with Alex Rodriguez sidelined following hip surgery) for the Yankees. But injuries -- including the need to repair a herniated disc in his back that wiped out the last three and a half months of his year -- limited him to 28 games in which he hit just .219 with a .305 OBP and .343 slugging mark. During his rehab, Youkilis spent six weeks working his way back to health at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa Bay. The isolation of that time weighed on him.
"In New York, everything was great. They treated everyone great in my family. All three organizations -- Chicago, New York and the Red Sox -- were all great to my family," Youkilis said of the teams with whom he's spent his career. "There was just a six-week period that was just rough. I was almost at the point where I was like I'd rather be with my family. If I have to give up baseball, I give up baseball, but I was almost to the point where I was like, well, if I don't have to play and I can be around my family everyday, then I'll do that. And then, my wife and my daughter said, OK, let's just do one more year, play one more year, have as much fun as you can and really enjoy this whole year of baseball, get healthy, focus on your body and get yourself in the best shape possible to do one more year."
Youkilis, based on that conversation with his wife, Julie, and seven-year-old daughter, hoped that it might be possible to get healthy (something that he says he's accomplished -- putting behind him the back issues that were at the root, he believes, of other maladies dating to his time in Boston) and play in the Bay Area. He asked his agent, Joe Bick, to see if there might be an opportunity to play with either the Giants or the A's.
The A's, of course, would have offered a particularly interesting storyline given that Oakland GM Billy Beane's interest in trying to acquire Youkilis in the 2002 season led to an odd sort of celebrity for the minor leaguer, who was mythologized as the Greek God of Walks in "Moneyball." But there wasn't a fit.
"We decided to tell Joe we'd like to play here in the Bay Area and then we could be home and my daughter wouldn't have to be out of school. Of course, our wishes weren't granted by the teams here. They didn't have much interest. Oakland, they talked about it, but at the end there was nothing," said Youkilis. "[Beane] had a lot of respect in what he said. He said it wouldn't be a major league deal, it wouldn't be much money. I think a lot of teams were worried about my health because I didn't play at the end of the year."
Youkilis -- who says he would have been ready to play by the second round of the playoffs -- also would have considered signing with the Dodgers, Angels and Padres, where the short flights would have permitted regular time with his family, but there were no conversations with those teams. Most of the interest he encountered was from the Midwest and East Coast. He couldn't do it.
"[Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona] really wanted me in Cleveland. There were other teams that called. Tampa Bay called, Baltimore called, the Yankees wanted me back, the Royals -- there was a lot of interest from major league teams," said Youkilis. "I told Tito directly -- I said, 'Tito, I've got to be honest with you -- if there was any manager I'd play for this year, it would be you. But it's just too hard for me personally. I can't go all the way to Cleveland and leave my family behind for the first month and a half and last month and a half of the season and just see them sporadically. It was just too hard for me.' "
How, then, to explain Japan? After all, a flight from San Francisco to Cleveland or New York is roughly five hours -- about half the travel time of a flight from San Francisco to Tokyo.
On the surface, Youkilis' decision makes little sense. And when Rakuten approached him with its offer, he didn't initially think that it was going to prove a viable option for his family, and so he was surprised at how the idea was received.
"I asked my wife and she said, 'Oh my God, that would be awesome.' I said, 'Really?' And she was all for it," said Youkilis. "I asked my parents, my in-laws, our immediate family and everyone thought it would be a really cool experience.
"I understand, it sounds kind of crazy -- why wouldn't you just want to sign with an East Coast team this year and take your family? But the hardest thing is my daughter is in a curriculum, has friends in her school and we felt like it would be the same thing over again. We have to leave her in school and they'll come to wherever I play after school's over and that just wasn't ideal to [play on the East Coast].
"Of course, it doesn't sound ideal to take them to Japan. But we just felt that, it's eight months and this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for our daughter, who will get to see a whole other culture for a seven- or eight-month period and get to do something that 99.9 percent of children around the world never get an opportunity to do. My wife has always wanted [to live abroad with family for a year]. This will be an awesome experience for her. I'm the one who worries more about them than she does about going there. She said they'll be fine and they'll enjoy every moment they have over there and come back in eight months and be back in the United States."
Ultimately, the appeal of a memorable life experience in which Youkilis will be able to live with his family proved a compelling prospect, particularly given that the travel and schedule in the NPB are drastically more appealing than in the US. The longest flight of the season will be 2 1/2 hours; Rakuten is about 90 minutes from Tokyo, with five NPB opponents clustered in the vicinity of the metropolis; there is an off-day every week.
In short, Youkilis and his family viewed the chance to return to health and play for Rakuten as an opportunity to balance his career with his family life for the first time since he got married.
Whether Japan will represent the final stop of his playing career remains to be seen. Youkilis -- who with nine and a half years of big league service time falls just short of eligibility for a full pension -- is leaving the door open to playing beyond 2014, but he is similarly open to the idea that this could be the last stop of his playing career, and that his days as a player in Major League Baseball could be over. He's at peace with the prospect.
"I'm not going to say I'm going to retire after one year. You never know. There might be one year after this. My wife said you might have an awesome time over there and want to come back to the United States and finish in the United States. I've realized over the past two years, nothing's ever etched in stone," said Youkilis. "But talking to my father and other people, you never want to look back and say you didn't try things, you didn't do new things in life. In one way, it's easy. It's not easy to play in the major leagues, but it's easy to live that lifestyle every year. This is an opportunity to do something different. I'm very fortunate because I have the choice to choose playing in the United States or choosing Japan. Some guys might not have the choice. They've going over there to make money because they're in Triple-A, going up and down.
"I've had a great career, made good money and this is just a choice -- it's a little outside the box probably for what some people think, but the older I get, the more I realize there are a lot of experiences in life that we miss out on. This could be one of the best experiences. It could be something different, something unique and fun, and who knows what happens? You've got to live life to the fullest because you never know what's going to happen."
There are things to which Youkilis is now looking forward -- the opportunity, for instance, to play with former Red Sox teammate Takashi Saito, who amazingly is still pitching at the age of 43, and what he hopes is a chance to play with Rakuten ace Masahiro Tanaka, who may or may not be put up for posting to a major league team by the Golden Eagles, and more broadly, the chance to experience a new culture on and away from the field.
But as he prepares for the next -- and perhaps final -- chapter of his career, Youkilis is able to look at his body of work in the major leagues with pride. His career began in utter obscurity, a player whose absence of athletic grace led to his being overlooked by the scouting industry, which deemed him unworthy of any of the 1,452 selections in the 2000 draft after a standout junior year at the University of Cincinnati, and had him on the board in the eighth round (243rd pick overall) for the Red Sox after his senior year.
From those inglorious origins, he has become a two-time World Series winner, a three-time All-Star, a Gold Glover and a player with two top-six finishes in AL MVP voting along with a career .281 average, .382 OBP and .478 slugging mark in 1,061 games.
It was hard-headed determination, torrents (and torrents and torrents) of sweat and a constant commitment to maximize his abilities with a life-and-death approach that seemed to characterize every at-bat and every pitch for which he was on the field that permitted him to emerge as, for a time, one of the top players in the majors. That same approach may have also compromised the longevity of his big league career -- few players looked like they absorbed a more constant pounding than Youkilis -- but that tradeoff represented a necessity that is not worth second-guessing.
"I don't have any regrets about how I played the game. I've played the game hard," said Youkilis. "There are little things I could have done better. I'm a perfectionist. I could have handled some situations better media-wise with some people.
"[But] I played at a high level because I had to make myself play at a high level. If I didn't play as hard as I could every single night, I would not have been the best player I could possibly be. Some people are natural athletes and some people have natural ability of size and height, this and that. I wasn't given those. I had to work for everything. I wasn't given anything. I think, the only thing I think I can say is, I think a lot of people lost that idea once I got to the major leagues and started having a couple good seasons that were pretty good. I think some people forgot that. I don't think everyone forgot that, but I do think it was forgotten sometimes -- the path that was a little harder."
On the field, such a path was not a difficult one to choose. But off of it, Youkilis was no longer willing to place his career before the opportunity to spend time with his family. And so, rather unexpectedly, he is now preparing for life in a new league, a new country, a new culture -- with no uncertainty about whether he's making the right choice.
"My life has changed," said Youkilis. "When you have children, you really understand, you come to grips and come to understand that baseball comes and goes, but your family is there and the experiences you have within your family will outweigh all the games you played in baseball, all the awards, all the World Series you win. All that is just stuff. The reality is when you come home and the kids are sick, or you have to take them to school, pick them up, that's what I cherish. I think I've grown up and matured in that way of realizing that giving my family the best life possible is all that matters."