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Youkilis the second-coming of Brian Downing? Don't hold your breath

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Kevin Youkilis batted leadoff one day last week for the Red Sox.

Don't expect to see him there during the regular season (though with Bobby Valentine pulling the Boston levers, you never know). Mostly, Valentine just wanted to get Youkilis some extra at-bats.

This being spring training, though, it was worth more than an extra AB or two to Youkilis that day: It launched Valentine into an excellent story from a long ago spring regarding how Brian Downing came to be his leadoff hitter in Texas in 1991.

Not only that ... would you believe this:

"Downing's the best leadoff hitter I've ever had, I think," Valentine said. "I don't want to slight anyone."

What happened was this: Downing finished a 13-year run with the California Angels in 1990, calling it quits at 39 years old. The next spring, the Rangers were putting their team together in Port Charlotte, Fla., and Valentine did not see a leadoff man in sight.

"We were in a search," Valentine said. "He was on a motorcycle ride from California to Las Vegas with the Hell's Angels. Or one of those groups. I don't want to give someone credit. It might have been Charter Oaks."

So Valentine walks across the street one night for dinner at a small Italian restaurant across the street from where he was staying (so many good spring training stories involve Italian restaurants, just ask Tommy Lasorda). And inside that restaurant was Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele -- whom, Valentine recalled, happened to mention that his sister had recently moved next door to Downing.

"I was sitting having dinner, and I went over to him and said, 'Do you think your sister could get ahold of Brian Downing?" Valentine recalled. "And from a pay phone -- this was 1980-whatever year it was [1991] -- outside Luigi's restaurant, he called his sister, who walked next door with him on the phone to ask Brian's wife to get ahold of him.

"She got ahold of him at some truck stop, wherever he was calling in from for the night, and said I wanted to talk to him. So I talked to him the next morning. He flew in, I believe, the next day, signed in the morning, played in the 'B' game, got hit on the first pitch by some wild rookie league pitcher and broke his hand."

Nonetheless, Valentine said, Downing -- whose nickname was "The Incredible Hulk" -- played the next day. And he was the Rangers' opening day leadoff man.

"Most of those pieces are correct," Valentine said. "It was something like that. It was 100 years ago."

Valentine's recollection was that he smashed a home run against Roger Clemens on opening day, which would have made this story even better. But alas, a check of Baseball-Reference.com reveals that the Rangers faced Baltimore that day and were beaten 11-4 -- though Downing did go 2 for 3 with a walk and a run scored. And he was hit by another pitch.

But Valentine's memory isn't all bad: Downing belted a home run on the second day of the season that year, during a 15-3 romp over the Orioles, against Baltimore's Paul Kilgus (not quite Clemens, but still). Downing went 2 for 3 with 3 RBI and 3 runs scored that day.

No wonder Bobby V. has such fond memories. Downing went on to hit .278 with a .377 on-base percentage in 123 games for the '91 Rangers, starting 91 of them in the leadoff slot. He played one more season with the Rangers, batting .278 with a .407 on-base percentage in 107 games (56 from the leadoff slot) in 1992 at age 41 before retiring after the season.

With Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia in the lineup, chances are that you won't be seeing Youkilis atop the Red Sox lineup anytime soon.

But. ...

"Youkilis is kind of a lookalike, isn't he?" Valentine joked.

Sunblock Day? Drop-dead gorgeous. In the 80s -- as usual -- and sensational in Florida.

Likes: Lakeland, Fla. Small-town feel all the way. Marquee at Southern Cleaners in town: "We're not broke - we're just pre-rich." Corn on the (Ty) Cobb, baby. ... Nice talks with Astros manager Brad Mills the past couple of days. Astros Camp Report coming later this week. ... Love that Lance Berkman says what's on his mind without fear. ... Larry David as one of the nuns in The Three Stooges: The Movie. This is going to be a must-see flick (I can hear my wife groaning from here, and she's a couple of thousand miles away). ... Looking forward to the debut full-length disc from Alabama Shakes next month.

Dislikes: Bad cover bands (see lyrics below! And do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Here We Rest by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Absolutely terrific).

Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Day:

"If there's one thing I can't stand
"It's this bar and this cover band …
"Trying to fake their way through 'Castles Made of Sand'
"That's one thing I can't stand
"If there's one thing I can't take
"It's the sound that a woman makes
"About 5 seconds after her heart begins to break
"That's one thing I can't take"

-- Jason Isbell, Codeine

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