Cla Meredith had heard of Dustin Pedroia, but that was about it. He knew Pedroia had played shortstop for a big-time program at Arizona State and had been a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. He knew Pedroia was the top Red Sox Draft pick that year, taken in the second round, 120 spots before Meredith’s name was called in the sixth. But it was 2004. Getting a clearer picture of Pedroia wasn’t as easy as pulling up YouTube and getting lost in a rabbit hole of highlights.
So when Pedroia eventually signed and arrived at Low-A Augusta for his first Minor League assignment about a week after Meredith, the right-hander’s limited knowledge of his new teammate led him to expect an imposing figure.
“Well, in walks Pedroia at 5-foot-7,” Meredith said. “He's built more like a [freaking] bowler than he is a baseball player. He takes his shirt off and you're like, you know, has this guy seen a weight room before?”
Pedroia is 5-foot-9, but close enough. He failed the eye test at first glance back then, yet it was hard to look away once he got on the field.
“The first time you saw him play, it was like, ‘OK, now I get it,’” Meredith said. “Now I know why he was the first pick by the Red Sox and Golden Spikes finalist type [stuff]. The dude was just a baller.”
Pedroia was that skilled, that driven and that loud. He needed just 12 games to go from pudgy prospect to promoted. His time in Augusta was the first scene of the first episode of a series that spanned 16 professional seasons, a moment so small it could easily be forgotten, though an introduction so fitting when viewed through the lens of everything that happened between then and Pedroia’s retirement last month.
“Honestly, you hate to hear that one person made us better, but he really brought a different level of energy and a mentality to our team,” GreenJackets manager Chad Epperson said. “It was instant. We had some good players on that team. We struggled to really put things together. Like a demeanor, who we were -- he came in and really solidified what we were about.”
The Red Sox sent Pedroia straight to the South Atlantic League because he was too advanced for the Rookie and short-season levels. So when he joined Augusta halfway through the season, he sat down with Epperson to discuss a sort of onboarding plan. Because an extended period had passed since Pedroia’s college season had ended, he’d be limited to batting practice and drills for five days. The coaching staff and a few scouts in town would monitor him. After the five days, if they deemed him ready, he’d play.
The GreenJackets played in Asheville, N.C. on Day 3 of the plan. Pedroia got off the bus, entered the clubhouse and checked the lineup. He wasn’t on it, so he stormed Epperson’s office.
"Why the [heck] ain’t I playing?"
“Well, Dustin,” Epperson tried to calmly explain, “we just went over a couple days ago that you’re on a five-day plan.”
"[Forget] five days! I’m ready to go. Let’s go."
“Listen,” Epperson said, “I know you’re eager. Just take it --”
"No. I’m not going to wait."
Epperson realized he wasn’t going to win this fight, at least not on his own. So he called Ben Cherington, then the Red Sox farm director.
“I remember the sound of Eppy's voice when he told me,” Cherington said. “It was like, ‘I don't think our manager has a choice on this one. If I stand in the way, I don't think I'm going to be helping our manager.’”
Pedroia was in the lineup Day 4.
The first at-bat of Pedroia’s professional career, Epperson recalled, began with a bullet off the left-field wall. Pedroia put his head down and took off. He was out at second by about 15 feet.
Later that game, Pedroia stood on first base with Brandon Moss -- the eventual South Atlantic League MVP that year -- at the plate. Moss knocked a slow grounder to right field. Pedroia reacted perfectly. Good secondary lead, correct read and a bang-bang sequence at third to beat a throw that sailed over the cutoff man. A play like that should result in two runners in scoring position, but when Pedroia popped up from his slide, Moss was jogging back to first. Pedroia had been Moss’ teammate for all of a few days but yelled across the diamond that the slugger should have been on second base. Epperson, coaching third, couldn’t believe it. He grabbed Pedroia by the jersey.
“Hey, man,” the manager advised, “we don’t do that here.”
"[Forget] that! He's gotta be at second base!"
Epperson relented, because Pedroia wasn’t wrong.
“That's who he is, and he never wavered from that,” Epperson said. “ ... I always used to talk about Secretariat and the heart being two-and-a-half times the size of any other horse, and that's kind of what Pedey is like. That's how he played.”
The GreenJackets finished that season 66-73, fifth in their own division. Pedroia, though, elevated them. His energy was a “reality check,” Epperson said, for players who had already been in pro ball for a few years. The reason Red Sox fans came to love Pedroia was the same reason yelling at Moss to take an extra bag didn’t earn him hate. It’s why Meredith now teaches his son to play like Pedroia.
Pedroia was scrappy, Meredith said, but scrappy probably wasn’t the right word because it sold Pedroia short. He wasn’t just outwilling people. He went 20-for-50 (.400) with a 1.034 OPS in 12 games. He struck out half as many times (three) as he walked (six).
“He just had incredible skill as a hitter,” Cherington said. “Obviously incredible contact ability. That's been documented. He was able to generate power in a very unique way, with sort of an uncoiling of his body. Swung really aggressively, but only at good pitches. Really tough at-bat. Great two-strike approach … I think the only thing that really truly changed for Dustin as a player from the time he signed and the time he got to the big leagues is he just got in much better shape.”
Pedroia spent the rest of 2004 with High-A Sarasota. The following spring, he met Cherington for a one-on-one meeting, just as the farm director did with every player at the onset of Minor League camp. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss expectations for Spring Training and the season, and Cherington would share with players their assignment if it had been determined. But at that point the Red Sox hadn’t decided if they’d send Pedroia back to Sarasota or to Double-A Portland. Getting that point across to him wasn’t easy.
“There was this awkward silence that seemed to last forever,” Cherington remembered. “He was just staring at me, through me, kind of.”
Pedroia finally broke the silence.
"Why would you send me back to A-ball?"
Cherington tried to explain. The lack of an assignment now didn’t necessarily mean Pedroia was going back to Sarasota. They thought he was doing great and wanted to make sure wherever he ended up was not too easy nor too challenging.
The explanation didn’t suffice. Pedroia stared daggers.
"There’s no reason for you to send me back to A-ball."
The meeting ended. Pedroia started the season at Double-A Portland.
By June of 2005, he earned a promotion to Triple-A. He reached the Majors in 2006, won Rookie of the Year and a World Series in 2007 and MVP in 2008. There were more rings and more awards and more records. It all began in Augusta. And while nothing that happened there molded Pedroia into a Red Sox legend, it was the first glimpse in pro ball of the mentality that would eventually make him one.