FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jacoby Ellsbury is the greatest flight risk in the history of baseball. There is no way he will be playing for the Red Sox next spring.
I’d bet my hair on it.
I tell him so in the clubhouse at JetBlue Park.
“Everybody knows you are gone,’’ I say. “If you’re still here next year, I’ll shave my head.’’
“Go for it,’’ says Ellsbury.
No problem. My hair is safe. Like everybody else around here, I know there is no chance Ellsbury will be with the Red Sox next year.
Nothing wrong with that. It’s just a fact.
Ellsbury is polite, but he’s weary of the contract question. It must be weird to go into a season when you know . . . and your teammates know . . . and all of the fans know that you are gone at the end of the year.
He is a pleasant enough fellow; a little bit too good-looking to be real (Dustin Pedroia teases him about being a “Spray Tan” guy) and spends almost no time at his locker when the media is allowed in the room. Ellsbury is the Red Sox Lone Ranger. And there is no Tonto.
Born in Madras, Ore., a flashy outfielder of Navajo descent, Ellsbury was drafted in the first round out of Oregon State in 2005. He made it to the big leagues late in the 2007 season and took over the World Series in Colorado when he cracked four hits at Coors Field in Game 3.
There have been many highlights. Ellsbury’s steal of home against Andy Pettitte was the best moment of the 2009 Sox season (he stole 70 bags that year) and in 2011 he made a legitimate run at the Most Valuable Player Award, hitting .321 with 32 homers, 105 RBIs, and 39 stolen bases.
We know the negatives. Ellsbury gets hurt and he’s slow to come back from injuries. He missed 144 games with broken ribs in 2010. He injured his shoulder and missed 88 games last year. Both injuries were results of collisions from playing hard, but he’s stuck with the image of a pampered baseball softy.
And he’s offered little defense. Ellsbury is not a combative man.
We’ve been hearing about his “walk” year since his third year in the majors. Finally, the walk year is here. Ellsbury’s contract will be up at the end of the season and there is no indication that he plans to re-up for a hometown discount during the 2013 campaign. Ellsbury is a Scott Boras client and they always test the market (Jason Varitek a rare exception).
Boras has trained his client well. Ellsbury knows all the ways to dodge the issue.
“I’m focused on winning this year,’’ he says, at the first mention of his walk year. “We haven’t even started the season yet. I’ve been getting these questions for four years now. Everybody knows I love playing in Boston. I’m just focused on the 2013 season and winning here.’’
Great. But that’s not what we’re asking.
“I can’t control what everybody else thinks,’’ he says. “Everybody has their opinion, but, like I’ve said before, I enjoy playing here. I love the fans. I enjoy my teammates and I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve been here.’’
Does it bother him that we all assume we know what he is going to do?
“I went out to dinner the other night and fans were coming up to me saying, ‘We’re excited for you. We appreciate you playing here.’ So I wouldn’t say it’s everybody. I just know a lot of people are excited about this year and obviously would like me to come back, but I’m focused on 2013.’’
He is focused on 2013. Got that?
Does it wear him out that there’s been speculation about him leaving for the last four years?
“Four years ago I’m going from arbitration and people were saying, ‘Are you going to go anywhere?’ Well, I’m under team control for the next four years. I don’t know, but it’s like this year I’m under team control for all this season, so I’m not worried about . . . you’ve got to focus on the task at hand.’’
OK. But just once fans would love to hear him say he’d love to finish his career in Boston. Can he give us that?
“Like I’ve done ever year,’’ he says after some hesitation. “Like I’ve said before, I love playing here. I enjoy my teammates. I enjoy the fans. I enjoy spring training and seeing everybody out here. Everybody is excited. So I’m focusing and going to just reiterate I’m focusing on this year. What counts is 2013.’’
It’s code. He hits the check list. He loves Boston. The fans. He’s focusing on this year.
But he will not stand up and say he wants to finish his career in Boston because he is a truthful young man.
This is when I tell him I’ll shave my head if he’s still here next year.
“OK, you’re on record then,’’ says Ellsbury. “You’ll shave your head.’’
It never will happen. The hair stays. Ellsbury goes.