July 2, 2007. That’s the night I officially became a Jacoby Ellsbury fan.
The rookie center fielder was in the lineup that night against the Texas Rangers. He got off to a good start, having reached base in the third inning on an infield single, been sacrificed to second, and then brought home by a Dustin Pedroia double.
He came to bat against Brandon McCarthy with two away and the bases empty in the fourth. He singled to right and immediately stole second. Julio Lugo walked, and Rangers rookie skipper Ron Washington decided McCarthy’s night was over. He brought in righthander Willie Eyre to face Pedroia. And then it happened.
Eyre bounced one past catcher Gerald Laird. The ball ricocheted off the wall and bounced toward the third base boxes. Ellsbury and Lugo advanced, of course, but that was not the end of the story.
I was not in the press box that evening. I was sitting with my wife, Elaine, in my Section 19 seats. That happens to be behind home plate, just on the edge of the screen on the first base side. And so it afforded me an excellent view of this particular action.
Here are my exact words.
“Holy [naughty word]! He’s coming home!”
He sure was. Jacoby Ellsbury never stopped running. He scored rather easily from second base on a wild pitch. I found that quite exhilarating.
I realize that, for many, the signature Ellsbury moment came a little less than 21 months later, when he executed the first “straight,” as we like to say, steal of home plate by a Red Sox player since Billy Hatcher had done it 15 years earlier. Making it even more enjoyable was the fact that it had come at the expense of Andy Pettitte and the New York Yankees. But I didn’t see that one live, so I can’t claim it as a special moment.
Now I got the news via an ESPN crawl. I was watching basketball when I read that Ellsbury had signed with the Yankees. At that instant I wasn’t a writer. I was just another season ticket-holder, sitting home, minding my own business. I wasn’t dispassionate. I was angry.
I wasn’t shocked that he was leaving. Anyone who has been paying the slightest bit of attention to the matter has had a good three or four years to prepare himself or herself for what could only be described as his inevitable departure once his contractual obligation to the Boston Red Sox had concluded.
Brother Shaughnessy laid it all out for us the other day. No amount of prodding or baiting could induce Ellsbury to commit to Boston permanently. There will be neither a paper nor an audio trail catching Jacoby Ellsbury in a contradiction. He was always on message. Yes, I love it here. Yes, I am committed to this team, this year, etc., etc., etc. But there was never a commitment to the future.
Therefore, I knew he was leaving when the time came. The thing is, while your intellectual self understands that New York can never be dismissed as a possible destination for a Jacoby Ellsbury, especially considering the configuration of Yankee Stadium, your emotional self is never adequately prepared for something like that to happen.
And, yes, of course I know very well what Johnny Damon had done. I had just sort of convinced myself that the Rangers or the Mariners or the Mets or somebody other than the Evil Empire would be the beneficiary of his many skills over the next several years. I really wasn’t emotionally prepared for him to take his many talents to the South Bronx.
I gave myself 24-36 hours to vent. I thought I had earned that right.
The venting is done. Off with the fan hat and on with the pundit’s fedora. I hereby congratulate Ben Cherington. You did the right thing.
In a better baseball world than the one we currently inhabit, Jacoby Ellsbury would have been offered, and would have signed, a four-year contract worth about $60 million. Oh, believe me, I know what a fantasy world that is.
With him operating at the top of the order in peak, or near-peak capacity, the Red Sox would have been in excellent shape. People all over baseball are lusting for quality leadoff men, and Ellsbury is one of the best. The identity of the 2014 leadoff man, I am certain, will be a prime spring training topic. Ellsbury’s departure weakens the team in that important spot. That alone puts a smile on Joe Girardi’s face.
The Yankees overpaid for Ellsbury, because, all the rhetoric to the contrary, that is what they do, what they have always done, and what they will always do. They must get back to the playoffs in 2014. They must put a team on the field that will boost TV ratings and create an appropriate buzz in the community. Signing Ellsbury is a Daily Double, helping themselves while hurting the Sox.
They still need a pitching staff, however, and don’t think Ben Cherington isn’t aware of it. He lost Ellsbury — no surprise there — but he still has the better team. Signing Ellsbury is a step in the right direction for the Yankees. It is not The Final Piece Of The Puzzle.
The Red Sox have a Plan and they intend to stick with it. Neither Ben Cherington nor anyone else at 4 Yawkey Way can look you in the eye and say they put a team out on Opening Day in 2013 they thought could bring them a World Series winner seven months later.
From a fan standpoint, the final result should be regarded as a blessed bonus. But it was the result of a Plan that does not include long-term contracts and does factor in continual help from a rich farm system whose very existence makes the Yankees sick. Trust me on that one.
Jackie Bradley Jr. is a Gold Glove center fielder waiting to happen. Will he hit? I can’t be sure, but the baseball savants mostly say yes. He will never be the next Jacoby Ellsbury, but he will be the first Jackie Bradley Jr., and I think we’re all going to like him.
One more thing: Xander Bogaerts may be the Next Big Thing. May I be the first to suggest that he be given a shot at leadoff? What’s wrong having a 25-homer guy with a discerning eye batting first?
What fans should do now is alien to the nature of many, but I firmly believe it is the only sensible course of action.
What we must do now is sit back and expect 2014 to be something of a reset year as some predictable events unfold and some reality sets in. I hate to be the bearer of sad tidings, but prepare yourself for the probability that in 2014 every little thing may not be all right.
Too much went right last season. Prepare yourself for the unexpected, secure in the knowledge that the Red Sox are well-fixed for the long haul. If not 2014, then there’s always 2015, 2016, 2017, and so on and so forth.
Final postmortem on Jacoby Ellsbury: He never lied to us.