THE U.S. TEAM in the World Baseball Classic recruited the most expensive, star-studded group of players ever assembled—well, excepting every New York Yankees team of the past six years. What happens when you throw together 28 ballplayers, 13 of them All-Stars, who will pull down a total of $160 million in salary this year from 21 teams? You get a petri dish for team chemistry. The most obvious and perhaps most surprising result of the experiment was that the smallest star turned out to be the most assertive.
The 5'9" second baseman of the Boston Red Sox, Dustin Pedroia, became the glue of the U.S. squad because of his energy, his competitiveness and his penchant for sparing no one, not even Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, from his friendly barbs. Indeed, when Pedroia was forced out of the WBC last Saturday because of a strained lower left abdominal muscle (the injury was considered minor, and he expects to be ready for Opening Day on April 6), Team USA was noticeably altered.
"It just got a little quieter around here," Jeter said. "No, make that a lot quieter. I never really knew him before, just from the All-Star Game a little bit. He's a great guy who keeps everybody loose."
Said the Cleveland Indians' Mark DeRosa, Pedroia's WBC fill-in starter at second base, "He's going to be missed, not just on the field but especially in the clubhouse. He's the one who gets everybody fired up. He picks you up. I know there are days over a season where you're dragging and don't have the energy. He's the kind of guy who shows up every day with a smile and gets on guys. He keeps your energy level up every day. It's great to have a guy like that around."
Not coincidentally, just as Pedroia left to rejoin the Red Sox spring training camp in Fort Myers, Fla., a flat Team USA was crushed by Puerto Rico 11--1, leaving it one loss from elimination in the tournament. Pedroia was saddened to have to check out of the WBC. "It stinks," he said. "I've been a slow starter, and it was great to get meaningful at bats this early [in the year]. It forces you to get locked in."
Pedroia had immediately made his presence felt on Team USA. When he found out he was assigned a locker next to Jeter in Toronto for the first-round games, he decorated his stall with a deodorant ad featuring Jeter that he'd ripped from a magazine. After one off day Pedroia poked fun at Jeter in a blog he wrote for a Boston sports radio station. Referring to a batting-practice competition in which push-ups were a penalty, Pedroia wrote, "So I did my push-ups ... real push-ups. Derek Jeter? Well, he didn't really go down all the way. I'm not a trainer or anything, but those weren't push-ups."
WBC and New York Mets third baseman David Wright said of Pedroia, "He's a great guy who can take it as well as he dishes it out, but he makes sure he dishes it out more. His mouth is always moving. He's like a little dog, nipping at your ankles all the time."
Stealing the WBC spotlight—Pedroia's television commercial for a video game, in which he playfully polishes his MVP plaque, ran in heavy rotation on the massive videoboard at Toronto's Rogers Centre during round 1—is just another confirmation of the second baseman's moxie. He was drafted in the second round in 2004, reached the big leagues in '06, won the Rookie of the Year award and a world championship ring in '07 and earned the MVP Award last year, after which the Red Sox signed him to a six-year, $40.5 million contract with an option that could keep him in Boston through '15.
No question, it's been a meteoric ascent for a player once thought of as too small to be a star. As he proved to Team USA, however, Pedroia has sneaked up on no one. You can hear him coming.
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ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (PEDROIA, JETER)
LIGHT TOUCH Pedroia (left) made rival Jeter the target of his good-natured ribs.