"He's a true baseball player," said Billy Gardner Jr., who managed Youkilis in 2002 with the Sarasota Red Sox in the Class A Advanced Florida State League. "He's a winner."
Youkilis' strength as a hitter has always come from his knowledge of the game and ability to grind out good at-bats, according to Gardner.
"He was a guy with tremendous ability to shrink the strike zone," Gardner said. "A lot of at-bats come down to control -- who controls the at-bat. And most times with Youk, it was him. He didn't let the pitcher control what was going to happen."
The Red Sox drafted Youkilis in 2001 out of the University of Cincinnati. He headed to the short-season New York-Penn League's Lowell Spinners and immediately showed his patience at the plate, leading the circuit with a .512 on-base percentage, 70 walks and 52 runs scored. His .317 average ranked third.
Youkilis began the 2002 season in Class A but quickly was promoted to Gardner's Class A Advanced team, where he spent most of the summer before a 44-game stint with Double-A Trenton. At the end of his first full professional year, he'd drawn 93 walks and crossed the plate 84 times.
"That's one of his best tools -- his eye," Gardner said. "Very rarely do I remember him swinging at a bad pitch or chasing anything out of the zone."
Still, because Youkilis didn't have power numbers or the makeup of a leadoff hitter, he remained under the radar of many in baseball.
Not so with Oakland general manager Billy Beane, who thought of him as "Euchlis, the Greek God of Walks" (Youkilis is actually of Romanian-Jewish descent) and tried on several occasions to acquire the youngster. Beane's fascination with Youkilis was revealed in 2003 with the publication of Michael Lewis' "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," the bestseller that brought Sabermetrics to the foreground of baseball analysis.
The book also made plain that the Red Sox knew what they had. General manager Theo Epstein used all of his power, Lewis wrote, "to establish Kevin Youkilis as the poster child for the Boston Red Sox farm system."
Gardner, who manages Double-A Montgomery in the Rays' system, recalled being aware of the latest baseball thinking and knowing, a year before Lewis' book was published, that other teams were interested in his third baseman.
"I don't [remember] rumors, but I do know that baseball as an industry was moving into the direction of placing a higher value on on-base percentage," he said. "Baseball as a whole was paying more attention to guys who know how to take walks, and Kevin always did. I'd imagine a lot of different teams had asked about him."
Youkilis remained focused on playing the game his way, trying to ignore the extra attention the book brought. He later admitted, however, that he was irked hearing fans cheer him for laying off bad pitches.
"It was frustrating to hear fans say, 'Get a walk!'" Youkilis told Sports Illustrated in 2007. "I'll take a walk -- a walk's as good as a hit -- but don't you want me to hit a home run or something?"
"For me in Sarasota," Gardner said, "he didn't really hit for power, but you could see he had power in his swing. You could tell it was there.
"Did he profile as a big leaguer right away? The jury was still out on that at the time. He wasn't the most physically gifted guy in the world, a natural athlete. But he always did know how to get a good at-bat in."
Youkilis continued to hone his ability to get good at-bats, and Gardner knew his homer and RBI totals would climb as he gained more experience. He already hit to all fields and was never cheated at the plate. Because the prospect with the strong stroke always did his best to get good pitches to hit, it was only logical that he'd grow into a power hitter.
"He just needed to get the at-bats in. He just needed more experience," said Gardner. "His mentality was, 'Don't waste a good swing on a bad pitch.' He always had good at-bats. That's something we try to teach and it's not easy to learn."
Youkilis' 2002 campaign was enough to convince Red Sox's front office he was ready to begin 2003 with the team's new Double-A affiliate in Portland, Maine. Even without the attention from "Moneyball," it would have been difficult for Boston to keep Youkilis a secret once the season was over.
He led the Eastern League with a .487 on-base percentage, finished third with a .327 batting average and ranked fourth with 86 walks in 94 games before a promotion to Triple-A. The Ohio native played in the All-Star Futures Game and was named a Double-A All-Star by Baseball America.
After the promotion to Pawtucket, Youkilis slumped, going 18-for-109 in the International League and, for the first time in his pro career, striking out more times (21) than he walked (18).
Still, the Red Sox had faith that Youkilis' gritty work ethic and disciplined approach to hitting would carry him through the rough patch. Rather than sending him back to Double-A Portland to build confidence for the 2004 season, they kept him at Pawtucket.
The decision paid off. Youkilis got the hang of hitting Triple-A pitching, batting .266 and scoring 25 runs in his first 38 games. When Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller went down with a knee injury in May, Youkilis got the call.
In his second big league at-bat, he homered off former Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen.
Although Mueller was healthy by the time the Red Sox made history with their first World Series title in 86 years, Youkilis had proven himself a Major Leaguer. By 2006, he was Boston's regular first baseman, winning a Gold Glove Award while helping the Red Sox to another World Series crown the following season. He's a two-time American League All-Star and a Hank Aaron Award winner.
But when Gardner thinks about Youkilis, it's the same hard worker who knows how to get the pitch he wants.
"His patience and discipline at the plate [comes to mind first]," Gardner said. "But he was highly motivated. He worked hard. If we needed somebody to make a clutch play or come up with a big hit, he was always the guy I could count on.
"He was a baseball player."
Minor League career breakdown
2001: In 59 games with the New York-Penn League's Lowell Spinners, Youkilis made the transition to pro ball look easy. He hit .317 and walked more than twice as often as he struck out, posting a league-leading .512 on-base percentage.
2001-02: In his first taste of Class A, Youkilis got a pair of hits in 12 at-bats during a five-game stint with the Augusta GreenJackets. He was back in the South Atlantic League to start 2002, but it took only 15 games and 20 total bases to prove he was ready for the next level.
2002: Spending the bulk of the season with Class A Advanced Sarasota, Youkilis played 40 games at first base and hit .295 with 48 RBIs.
2002: Reaching Double-A while still in his first full season as a pro, Youkilis hit .344 for the Trenton Thunder. His success in 44 Eastern League games showed he could handle the jump.
2003: With the Portland Sea Dogs, Youkilis led the Eastern League with a .487 on-base percentage and was third with a .327 batting average. His 86 walks ranked fourth, even though he played only 96 games there before being promoted to Triple-A.
2003-04: Struggling over more than a few games for the first time in his professional career, Youkilis hit .165 in 32 games with the Pawtucket Red Sox. Still, he struck out only three more times than he walked. He was much more consistent in his second stint with the PawSox, batting .266 with 15 extra-base hits in 38 games. And when Mueller was injured, Youkilis was ready to step in.