CHICAGO – About three hours before his home debut with the White Sox on Tuesday, Kevin Youkilis paused in a corner of the dugout and examined a wall of black batting helmets.
Each helmet looked the same except for small, white decals on the back that displayed each player’s number. Youkilis silently searched until he finally found the one marked “20” and grabbed it from the shelf.
Anyone who has endured a first day at the office can relate.
“It’s definitely a new environment, coming into the clubhouse and trying to find your way about, trying to fit in and trying to be a part of the team,” said Youkilis, 33, before batting practice. “But the best way to do that is just going on the field and playing the game hard.”
Hitting the ball hard is OK, too.
Youkilis shined in his South Side debut, belting a two-run home run in his first at-bat and later ripping a pair of RBI singles. He finished 3 for 6 with four RBIs as the Sox demolished the Texas Rangers, 19-2.
It’s early, but Youkilis and the Sox appear to be a terrific match.
The veteran needed a break. The team needed a boost.
In his first week with the Sox, Youkilis marveled at how few reporters traveled with the club. He spent the past nine years in Boston, where a sneeze by Josh Beckett might elicit three feature stories and a column.
At U.S. Cellular Field, Youkilis said, the media contingent was much larger. But it still paled in comparison to the zoo at Fenway Park.
“I didn’t realize until now that you’re second fiddle to the Cubs, so there’s not as much news,” Youkilis said. “I kind of knew it, but I figured this team’s in first place, their team’s in last place.
“I thought we’d get a lot more publicity, but I’ve been in a place where there was way too much, so I’d rather be under the radar right now.”
If Youkilis excels under the radar, he could put the Sox over the hump.
Third base has been a wasteland, and Youkilis offers much-needed plate patience and steady defense as an aging but effective everyday player.
In the second inning, Youkilis charged a soft ground ball and fired a strike to first base to retire the Rangers’ Mike Napoli. In the fifth, he fielded a tough hop to turn an inning-ending, 5-4-3 double play.
A crowd of 30,183 thanked him with a deep-voiced chant, “Youuuuk.”
If it were Orlando Hudson or Brent Morel, those might have been boos.
Sox general manager Ken Williams praised Youkilis, who entered Tuesday with a .286 career average and a .387 career on-base percentage.
“Hard-nosed,” Williams said. “Hard worker. Fights through every at-bat.
“With [Youkilis] and Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko in the middle, they can go 0-for-12 collectively and still have an impact on the game, and the impact might be just as simple as getting that starting pitcher [tired] because they see so many pitches.”
Alternatively, they can go 7 for 12 with nine RBIs to make the reigning AL champions look like a beer league team from Woodstock.
Today marks game No. 81, the season’s halfway point. The Sox (43-37) boast a two-game lead on the second-place Cleveland Indians in the AL Central.
Youkilis, who won a pair of World Series rings in Boston, knows what playoff teams look like. He said his new club fit the profile.
“Any time you’re in first place, [it’s] a playoff-caliber team,” Youkilis said. “We’ve just got to go out and keep playing good ball.”
A good veteran such as Youkilis helps the cause.
• Tom Musick covers Chicago sports for the Northwest Herald. Contact him at email@example.com.