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.
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.
One thing working in Ellsbury's favor is his athleticism. He grew up in a family with three brothers, all of whom, like him, played multiple sports. While Ellsbury was a standout at Oregon State in baseball, helping to propel his team to the NCAA College World Series in his junior year, he also played basketball, football, and track in his earlier school days.
When Red Sox scouts first came to Oregon State to look at Ellsbury, the Beavers were supposed to be playing San Diego State. But it was raining. So Casey, who was determined to show the scouts what Jacoby could do, told him to "grab a basketball, go under the basket over there, and drive it home." Ellsbury, though only 6 ft., 1 in., dunked it from a standing jump.
Margie Ellsbury concurs that her son has always shown unusual speed and jumping ability. She says that when he competed in track in middle school, the coaches didn't teach much technique. But he almost always won the high-jump competition. When he played basketball in high school, the coaches would always send him in for the tip-off, even though the person he matched up against was often eight inches taller. "There was no way he could win that tip-off, but he always did," says Ms. Ellsbury. "He electrified people in the gym."
Ellsbury has shown some of that athleticism in his short stint with the Red Sox. He has run down distant fly balls, careened through chairs to catch pop-ups in foul territory, and, on one occasion, scored from second base on a wild pitch. His speed has helped him scratch out infield hits and pick up nine stolen bases – on a team traditionally not known for running. He has hit an above-average .353 during his time in Boston.
Already, some overzealous fans here are anointing him a possible rookie-of-the-year candidate for next season. (Ellsbury hasn't played in enough games to be eligible this year.) But he will have to make it permanently to the majors first, then try to grab a spot on a team that already has established players – and substantial money – invested in the outfield positions.
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Since 1897, 47 full-blooded native Americans have played in the major leagues, according to the Baseball Almanac. While Ellsbury is only one-half Navajo, he is one of several players of native American descent now making a mark in the big leagues – another being Joba Chamberlain, a rookie reliever for the Yankees.
Ellsbury, in particular, is being closely watched by the Navajo Nation in Arizona. "Every time a native American accomplishes such a thing, it draws a lot of attention from the youth because it demonstrates it can be done," says Duane Beyal, editor of the Navajo Times in Window Rock, Ariz., who's following Ellsbury's exploits.
Ellsbury is mindful of his heritage. His grandmother, a full-blooded Navajo, would spend summers at their house in Oregon, teaching Ellsbury and his brothers Navajo songs. The boys, says Margie Ellsbury, would visit the Navajo reservation in Arizona almost every summer. Ellsbury knows he has become a role model. "I understand the importance of giving back, and that's something I definitely want to do," he says.
For now, the rookie just seems to be enjoying his Cinderella moment in the majors – but keeping things in perspective. At Oregon State, Casey always stressed that the game is "bigger than any of us." His mother tries to infuse humility by reminding him to appreciate the good fortune that has brought him this far.
She used to film all his games at Oregon State with a Super 8 camera. "Jacoby was the only one who wanted to be filmed," she says. "His brothers didn't want me to do that."
She might want to get some extra film.