Red Sox' Dustin Pedroia is back and, while he may not admit it, he's changed

Trenni Kusnierek
NBC Sports Boston

Red Sox' Dustin Pedroia is back and, while he may not admit it, he's changed originally appeared on nbcsportsboston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Dustin Pedroia swears he hasn't changed since entering the league in 2006. Fine, he'll concede he has a few more grey hairs, but that is about it. 

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Things, however, have changed. As Pedroia and I chatted about his kids at his locker on Friday morning, the Red Sox second baseman was pulling on a knee brace. It will be as much a part of his uniform this season as the number 15 stitched into his New Balance cleats. 

Pedroia will wear the brace as he continue to make his comeback from knee surgery in 2017. The cartilage restoration procedure involved grafting cartilage from a cadaver into his left knee. It's a surgery that caused him to have second thoughts. 

"I don't regret doing it," he said, "But looking back, knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have done it."

The operation resulted in Pedroia missing all but three games in 2018. He admitted that in hindsight you can't expect to put a cadaver's knee in your body and play ball in six months. Yet that's exactly what Pedroia tried to do.

"I might have pushed it too hard or done too much. But as far as following directions, I followed every step. I think some of the directions, timing-wise, were a little off."

A lesson learned. A man changed. Whether he'll readily admit it or not. 

Pedroia has a Rookie of the Year Award to go along with an MVP, but what he's best known for is his relentless nature on the field. 

If Dustin Pedroia can play, he wants to be in the lineup. When healthy, we would always hear managers talk about having to force him to take a day off.

Last season Pedroia had 159 days off. Enough time to think about how to stay on the field, even if it means he's not playing night after night. 

Over the 20-plus minutes Pedroia spent talking to the media on Friday, he repeatedly used the word "smart". 

The second baseman is going to be smart about his rehab. He will be smart about the number of ground balls he fields in spring. He'll be smart about the kinds of plays he makes on the field. 

The guy who didn't feel like he really played in a game unless his uniform was covered in dirt, knows he can't sacrifice his body unless the game absolutely requires it.

"If we are up by ten runs and a guy hits a ball [and] I don't know if I can make the play," he said, "I'm sure our pitcher will understand if i don't dive for it and it goes through."

Make no mistake about it, Pedroia will go to any length to win a game. But this year, he's not going to play stupid. He knows if he is reckless with his 35-year-old (36 in August) body, it could all be over. 

"I don't want to push it and not be able to do what I love to do. I just have to be smart."

He'll also continue to be relentless in his pursuit to get back on the field. Manager Alex Cora said he'd like to reward Pedroia's hard work by letting him bat leadoff when the Red Sox open the season in Seattle on March 28. 

"I appreciate him doing that," Pedroia said, "He better not give me too many days hitting leadoff if I stay there. I think these guys have seen how hard I've worked to come back. To give me that opportunity would be cool."

But the guys Pedroia really wants to impress? The sons we talked about on Friday morning. 

"The most important thing for me coming back is my kids seeing me push through adversity."

Sounds like something an older, wiser, smarter dad would say. 

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