By ROB MAADDI, AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) _ Two young boys from New Jersey wearing pinstriped Yankees jerseys spotted Dustin Pedroia chatting with Reggie Jackson near the foul line and couldn’t resist asking for an autograph.
Not from Mr. October. Rather, they wanted Pedroia to sign.
“Mr. Pedroia! Mr. Pedroia!” the brothers shouted, hoping to get his attention.
Pedroia finished his conversation with Jackson, a fellow Arizona State alum, and walked over to fans gathered in the box seats section. The former AL MVP signed for several minutes, delighting the crowd of Yankees fans. Yes, Yankees fans.
It was strange to see these fans, many of whom were visiting from the New York area, clamoring for a player on the hated Red Sox instead of shouting obscenities at him.
More so, it was odd to see Jackson giving advice to someone who plays for New York’s biggest rival, even if they went to the same college.
Imagine what The Boss would’ve said. George Steinbrenner may have fired Jackson from his guest instructor duties on the spot if he witnessed the Hall of Famer being so chummy with anyone in a Boston uniform.
“I was asking if he was coming to the alumni game,” Pedroia said with a grin.
The little guy with the big bat is one of the most popular players in the majors, as evidenced by the fact he even appeals to Yankees fans.
“I think it’s great,” Pedroia said. “If you are a Red Sox fan or a Yankees fan, if you play the game the right way, there’s mutual respect. Don’t get me wrong, you want to beat them because you are competitive, but the respect level for those guys is through the roof.”
On a team that features a slew of talented players, including Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, Pedroia is the heart and soul in the clubhouse. Now that longtime captain Jason Varitek has retired, Pedroia probably deserves to wear the “C” on his uniform more than anyone.
The hard-nosed, gritty second baseman plays with an edge that motivates teammates and inspires the littlest of little leaguers to try their hardest. At 5-foot-9 and barely 180 pounds, Pedroia doesn’t compare to the jacked-up superstars in size. He makes up for it in production.
Pedroia batted .307 and had career-highs in homers (21), RBIs (91) and stolen bases (26) last season. But all he remembers is the bitter disappointment at the end. The Red Sox went 7-20 in September, blew a nine-game lead and lost the AL wild-card spot to the Tampa Bay Rays on the last day of the regular season.
“I’ve never been on a team that went 7-20,” he said. “I’ve won every year of my life. I was embarrassed. I hope a lot of the guys were, too. We can turn it around and have a great season.”
The collapse led to major changes in Boston, starting at the top. Gone are general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, who both led the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007. Closer Jonathan Papelbon left in free agency, signing with the Phillies. Tim Wakefield, J.D. Drew and Marco Scutaro are among the other players who didn’t return.
Pedroia isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, though. He’s signed through 2014 with a club option for 2015. Even after having his best-all around season, Pedroia strives to get better.
But what can he improve on?
“Everything, trying to get better every day whether it’s offensively, defensively or running the bases or being a leader,” Pedroia said. “Work harder on every aspect and hopefully it transitions to the game and the season.”
Pedroia is a team player, of course. He didn’t flinch when new manager Bobby Valentine flip-flopped him with Ellsbury at the top of the order. Pedroia usually bats second, but he’s comfortable hitting leadoff if needed. He’s only a career .253 hitter in 76 games in that spot, but he’ll do whatever it takes to win. On 29 occasions, Pedroia has even batted cleanup, a spot reserved for the real sluggers. Maybe he should stay there. He has a .397 average with seven homers and 28 RBIs in 121 at-bats in the No. 4 hole.
“I’ll hit wherever I hit,” Pedroia said confidently. “I don’t care.”
Against St. Louis on Thursday, Pedroia batted third and Youkilis led off. Valentine, though, said he just wanted to get Youkilis quick at-bats.
Pedroia, a second-round pick in 2004, was the AL Rookie of the Year in `07. Then he joined Cal Ripken Jr. and Ryan Howard as the only players in baseball history to follow a rookie award with an MVP in `08. Pedroia led the AL with 213 hits, 118 runs and 54 doubles while batting .326 with 17 home runs, 83 RBIs and 20 stolen bases. That earned him a $40.5 million, six-year contract after the season.
Pedroia has been to the All-Star game three times and has two Gold Glove Awards to go along with his other hardware. Team accomplishments mean more to him, so he’s hoping for another World Series ring on his hand.
“I’m just trying to come out and help us win,” he said. “I’m trying to get better every day and play the game the right way and that’s about it.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)