By Mike DiGiovanna/Los Angeles Times
Alex Verdugo left a mark in his first visit to Fenway Park, and not just with the four hits, including a homer, two RBIs and strong throw to gun down a runner at the plate in two games there for the Los Angeles Dodgers last July.
“A lot of people wouldn’t know this, but growing up, my favourite team was the Boston Red Sox — I was a huge David Ortiz fan,” Verdugo said. “Seeing the park for the first time, the Green Monster, I wrote my name (inside the left-field wall) in three different spots.”
Verdugo plans to make a more indelible mark on the quirky 108-year-old stadium and the rabid fans who inhabit it this season after the 23-year-old outfielder was traded to the Red Sox with two minor leaguers for star outfielder Mookie Betts and veteran pitcher David Price last weekend.
Known for his vicious left-handed swing, fearless defensive play and a swagger accentuated by his dreadlocks, tattoos and gold chains around his neck, Verdugo is embracing the pressure that comes with being the key player going to Boston in a trade for Betts, the 2018 American League most valuable player.
“I know who I am and what I can do on the baseball field,” Verdugo said as he sat on a bench outside the team’s JetBlue Park clubhouse on Saturday. “I’m extremely confident in my abilities on defense, in the batter’s box and with my baserunning. I know I can be a game-changer, and I plan on being an All-Star, winning Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers.” First things first. To win awards and win over Boston fans, Verdugo has to get back on the field.
Verdugo is still rehabilitating from a stress fracture in his lower back, an injury that sidelined him for the final two months of last season and the playoffs and will likely force him to open 2020 on the injured list.
The stress fracture was not revealed publicly by the Dodgers last season. Verdugo felt discomfort in his lower back after a series on Tampa Bay’s artificial surface in late May, went on the IL because of a right oblique strain on Aug. 6 and suffered a setback on a swing in a minor league game on Sept. 2.
But Boston manager Ron Roenicke said the Dodgers informed the Red Sox of the stress fracture before the trade, that surgery was not required and that Verdugo was continuing to heal.
“I know there are a lot of expectations, but at the end of the day, missing the first part of the season is nothing when you think about the longevity of this year and years to come,” said Verdugo, who hit .294 with an .817 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 12 homers, 22 doubles and 44 RBIs in 106 games last season.
“There’s no reason to try to rush back and make it for opening day if I’m not fully back, because then you’re going to start messing around with getting re-injured. I’ve been out this long, I might as well make it a little longer and make sure it’s 100%.”
Verdugo also did a little rehab work on his image Saturday, addressing allegations that he was linked to a possible physical and sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl in an Arizona hotel room in 2015, when Verdugo was an 18-year-old Dodgers prospect. A police report was filed at the time, according to a Sports Illustrated investigation of the incident last February, but there were no arrests or charges, in part because the alleged victim did not wish to co-operate. The magazine did not name Verdugo or the other player allegedly involved, but Verdugo was mentioned in a separate blog post about the incident last February.
“My name being mentioned in allegations, it hurts,” Verdugo said. “I don’t want Boston fans to judge me for something they’ve read or seen posted. I know who I am, what I believe in, my family values.” Verdugo said he was “cleared of any wrongdoing” in the incident. Although he was not accused of perpetrating an assault, he did not deny being linked in some way to the incident.
“If I was around for anything that happened, I would have put a stop to it, helped out, I would have done something,” Verdugo said. “I have five sisters, two brothers. I’m from a big family and was raised the right way. I’m very close to my sisters, and I have the utmost respect for women.”
Verdugo felt it was important to discuss the allegations with his new team because “I didn’t want to be a distraction,” he said. “I wanted to let everyone know what happened so it doesn’t catch any of the players by surprise. It’s out there. Everybody knows it, and now you can start the healing.”
What lessons did Verdugo learn from the incident?
“That you have to be smarter with the positions you put yourself in,” he said. “It was a terrible thing that happened, but it was in my past. It was something I’ve learned from and grown from.”
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