Red Sox rookie brings lightning feet to the diamond
Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, the first player of Navajo descent in the major leagues, has made a mark in a late season fill-in role.
It was the first inning of an important game between Oregon State University and arch-rival Stanford University. Jacoby Ellsbury was prowling right field for the Oregon State Beavers. Suddenly, a deep fly ball arced toward the right-center field gap. He bolted toward the ball, diving to make a seemingly miraculous catch before plunging headfirst into the wall.Skip to next paragraph
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The ball ended up in his glove on his chest, according to his coach, Pat Casey, but wasn't ruled a catch. Ellsbury was out cold. When he finally came to a few minutes later, he asked if he could stay in the game. He ended up, instead, with nine stitches.
The incident encapsulates the passion with which Ellsbury tends to play the game. Since being called up from the minor leagues by the Boston Red Sox four weeks ago, the young outfielder has brought a fiber-optic speed to the base paths, a gritty glove in the outfield, and a surprisingly strong bat.
Along with several other minor leaguers added to the team's roster in the final month of the season – including no-hit pitching sensation Clay Buchholz – he has helped infuse the club with an energy and enthusiasm as it has captured its first divisional championship in 12 years.
Now, as the team heads into the first round of the playoffs tonight, Ellsbury, the first player of Navajo descent to make the major leagues, may see more limited duty. But he has already left a mark on the team, emerged as a fan favorite, and may be inspiring a new generation of native Americans to pick up a bat.
"Ellsbury has put a new dimension of pure speed and excitement into our game," says veteran Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell.
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On a dark rainy Wednesday, Ellsbury enters the Red Sox clubhouse before a game with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He flashes a smile. He's wearing a bandage around his left wrist – the consequences of an encounter with the "Green Monster" the night before while attempting to catch a fly ball in his usual full-tilt style.
A few players sit in front of their lockers, some of which are filled with photos of their girlfriends, wives, and children as well as crayon drawings. A clutch of reporters waits at Ellsbury's locker. Quiet but attentive, Ellsbury tells me that because he and the other rookies have had the shared experiences of moving through the minor league ranks, this has eased his own transition to the majors. It's given him confidence.
Ellsbury says the one person in life who has inspired him the most is his father. Ellsbury's parents, Jim and Margie, live in Madras, Ore. His dad, a forester, gets up at 5 a.m. every day to make a living for the family. That has encouraged the young Ellsbury to push himself. Similarly, he lauds his mother, an early-intervention specialist on the Warm Springs Reservation near Madras.
On the field, the person Ellsbury would most like to pattern his career after is Ken Griffey Jr., a left-handed hitting All-Star center fielder. Griffey played for the Seattle Mariners when Ellsbury was growing up in Oregon. "I had the opportunity to see him play at the Kingdome, and I just loved how he played," says Ellsbury.
Ellsbury remains close with his former coach at Oregon State. When he got the call last month to come up to the big leagues, Casey was one of the first people Ellsbury phoned on the way to Fenway Park. "He was very excited and said he hoped to see a game this year," says Ellsbury.
Casey, for his part, believes Ellsbury could become a "superstar." He knows the young player won't become a power hitter, but believes he could get 20 home runs a year, steal 40 bases, and "drag and dump bunts." Like others, he compares Ellsbury to former Red Sox player Johnny Damon, now with the Yankees.