Fielding more than his share of bad hops

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- His older brother went to prison for a sex crime, and almost without fail, the papers identified the perpetrator as "Dustin Pedroia's brother."

His father, Guy, received death threats at the family's tire store after an interview his son gave in which he was quoted as saying his hometown was "a dump."

His wife, Kelli, was in and out of the hospital because of complications with her first pregnancy, relief not coming to the anxious couple until their son, Dylan, was born healthy in August.

"It was tough," Dustin Pedroia said in an all-but-empty Sox clubhouse late last week after he and Adrian Beltre had each taken 100 or so swings in extra batting practice.

"I dealt with a lot of [stuff] last year. My biggest thing was, you just got to find a way to get through it. When I got to the yard, I tried to concentrate on baseball. When I got home, I had to do all I could to keep everything under control, or at least make it seem like it was under control."

Pedroia is entering his fourth season with the Red Sox. He has long since outgrown the storyline of the Little Engine That Could, the small, brash man with the big swing, to become one of the elite players in the American League. Rookie of the Year. MVP. World Series ring holder. All-Star. Clubhouse galvanizer, cutup, leader.

"Seeing him," Victor Martinez said recently, "just makes you want to work that much harder yourself."

Pedroia is still driven by those who couldn't look past his short stature, receding hairline and absence of transparent athletic gifts and judged him lacking, but it's hard to feel quite as slighted anymore.

Consider Pedroia's line by age 25: 481 games, .307 batting average, .370 on-base percentage, .855 OPS, 191 extra-base hits.

Check those stats against history, and you'll find only two second basemen with comparable numbers by age 25. One was Tony Lazzeri, who played for the Murderers' Row Yankees and turned 25 in 1929. The other was Larry Doyle of the 1912 New York Giants.

It gets even better. Run Pedroia's numbers against 25-year-olds regardless of position, and you'll generate a list of some of the best players in the game: Hanley Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero and Derek Jeter. The Yankees' captain took an instant liking to Pedroia when they played together on Team USA in the World Baseball Classic last spring. ("They go at it constantly, man," an amused teammate, Chipper Jones, said at the time. "It's fun watching the Yankees and Red Sox interact, because you know they're going to hate each other in the morning.")

"People know I can play now, so I don't have to prove anybody wrong," Pedroia said. "My biggest thing is, we gotta win. That was my goal even when people were doubting me. Things haven't changed."

The winning-comes-first mantra is a familiar one in big league clubhouses, but in Pedroia's case, there is proof that he'll take money out of his own pocket -- or at least his parents' pockets -- if it enhances his chance of winning. After his freshman year at Arizona State, he called his mother, Debbie, and told her he was giving his scholarship back so that the school could give it to another player.

"Dustin called and said, 'Mom, I really want to get to the World Series,'" Debbie Pedroia said in an interview in Oakland a couple of years ago.

Guy Pedroia's reaction? "What's a few more tires?"

But for all his success, Pedroia's world entered a different, darker dimension last year.

Brett Pedroia had played baseball, too, a catcher who made it as far as Shasta Junior College despite shattering an ankle in high school. He helped run Valley Tire with Guy and Debbie Pedroia until last year, when he was arrested in January and convicted six months later of committing a sexual act with a child several years before.

There had been troubling signs earlier. In 2005, Guy had had his son arrested for allegedly making threats to his parents.

Brett Pedroia's defense attorney, Steven Sabbadini, contended that Brett Pedroia had a severe addiction to methamphetamines. Brett said he'd begun using while still at college, leading to a downward spiral that left him homeless at one point. He said he used drugs with the victim's mother and was strung out on meth when he committed the act for which he was convicted.

Brett Pedroia was sentenced to a year in jail and eight years' probation. Dustin Pedroia was left to deal with the fallout.

"It hurt when they wrote all that stuff and put my name in the paper," he said. "It upset me, especially when my hometown paper started it up.

"I learned from it, man. I'm not responsible for anyone else's actions. I think everyone knows what type of guy I am. But that part was tough."

The Pedroias are from Woodland, Calif., a town of about 55,000 located 20 miles northwest of Sacramento. Charles Schwab, the stockbroker, was born there. It's in prime farm country, a place where processing tomatoes is one of the leading industries.

Last spring, not long after his brother's arrest, Pedroia was the subject of a profile in Boston Magazine that was largely flattering but contained this nugget about Woodland: "It's a dump," Pedroia says in the piece. "You can quote me on that."

To this day, Pedroia insists he was joking with the author of the story, though he would be hardly the first person who aspired to leave his hometown in the rearview mirror. The quote created an uproar in Woodland, where local police eventually arrested a man for telephoning threats to the Pedroias' tire store, and Pedroia even had extra security when the Red Sox were in Oakland.

"I love my hometown, but for people who don't know me, they look at this guy who was crushing his hometown," Pedroia said. "The people who knew me called and said, 'Hey, we know how you really feel.' I love my hometown; I grew up there; I know everybody there.

"All my life I just played baseball and didn't think about anything. Last year, a thousand things came up, and I'm like, 'Jeez.'"

This past January, Pedroia returned to Woodland for a fundraiser for Clark Field, the ballpark in which he'd played as a child. More than 500 people showed up, and the former sports editor of the local paper introduced him.

"We are proud to say Dustin is from Woodland," the emcee said. "Welcome back, Dustin Pedroia."

The experience was an eye-opener for Pedroia.

"I guess that was like the first step of having to deal with being a professional athlete," he said. "People, they target you.

"But all of that went away when Kelli was going through her stuff. I just tried to take care of her. I just tried to live my life. I've got my own family now. I worry about my parents all the time, too. They did a great job of raising me. But I can only control what I can control."

Red Sox manager Terry Francona said he was aware of all that Pedroia was dealing with last season.

"I think it was hard on him," Francona said. "But he didn't let on."

Certainly, his performance didn't suffer. His numbers were down from his MVP year, 2008, but not by much.

"I'm proud of the way I got through the year and fought and just played," he said. "Whatever was thrown at me, I had to deal with it and just go."

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.