John Donovan
Monday March 10th, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It is past 5 p.m. on a gray and blustery early March day at the City of Palms Park, the spring home of the World Series champion Boston Red Sox. An hour after a ho-hum exhibition win over the Pirates, stars Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are long gone from the Boston clubhouse. Daisuke Matsuzaka, this afternoon's starter, has dressed, done news conferences in both English and in Japanese and disappeared into the afternoon. Second baseman Dustin Pedroia, known for his work ethic, wandered off more than an hour ago. First baseman Kevin Youkilis has slipped out.

Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek, the sage old veterans, phenom Jonathan Papelbon (who also pitched in the game), right fielder J.D. Drew and reliever Hideki Okajima are outta here. Manager Terry Francona, who dutifully talked with the press after the game, showered and met with some with his coaches, walked out a while ago.

Truth be told, virtually every coach and player on the big-league club -- maybe every one -- has taken off by now.

Except Jacoby Ellsbury.

The World Series hero, the pride of Madras, Ore., and the best bet to be the starting center fielder for the defending champions finally emerges from the clubhouse with a sheepish grin and a quick, "Hey."

Ellsbury is a busy man this spring. He has a job to win. Workouts to keep up with. At-bats to break down. People to meet. Obligations to keep.

It's been that kind of whirlwind few months for the 24-year-old Ellsbury. Heck, it's been that kind of breakneck career for Boston's first pick in the 2005 draft. "It's happened quickly," he says, leaning forward on a lawn chair outside of the team's clubhouse. "But I told myself in the minor leagues to be prepared for anything. You never know when you're going to get that opportunity. So always be ready for it."

Ellsbury, probably more than anyone, recognizes what he has in front of him this spring. After wowing the team and its fans late last season, and galloping through the postseason as if it were just another weight to be lifted or another base to be stolen, Ellsbury is in a fight to become Boston's every-day center fielder.

It's clear to those around the team that the Red Sox want Ellsbury to win the job. But the team hasn't been able to trade the other center fielder on the roster, Coco Crisp, and Francona and others are quick to remind everybody -- probably because they don't want to sully his trade value -- that Crisp, don't forget, is the incumbent.

The Sox, as it looks right now, could end up with both Crisp and Ellsbury on the Opening Day roster. And Ellsbury, for what it's worth, has been struggling in his first few games of the spring. Crisp hasn't been playing nearly as much.

Who will be the starter if both break camp with the Sox? The smart money remains clearly on Ellsbury. But nothing, officially, has been settled, and true to his nature -- and being the smart guy that he is -- Ellsbury is not about to take anything for granted.

"I know my role. I'm a young player. I'm here to help the team," Ellsbury says. "If I get the starting spot, I'm going to do everything I can to help the team. If I don't, then I'm going to do everything I can to help the team.

"Maybe my time's not now. Maybe it's next year. Maybe it's two years from now. But I'm not going to sit back and not compete. I'm going to do everything I can to earn it."

Ellsbury made a convincing case for the job with a stellar debut last year. He got his first call up in late June and fared well his first week. But it wasn't until he became a regular in September -- Francona put him in the lineup even as the Yankees were bearing down on Boston -- that it was evident that Ellsbury belonged. In 26 September games, 23 of them starts, (eight in center field in place of Crisp) Ellsbury hit .361 with a .390 on-base percentage. He had 10 extra-base hits and stole eight bases.

In the postseason, the kid from Madras -- population a little more than 5,000 -- bumped Crisp from center field before Game 6 of the American League Championship Series and electrified the Boston attack. He hit .375 in six postseason starts and, in the World Series sweep over the Rockies, hit .438. His four-hit effort in Game 3 of the World Series, which included three doubles, was his official coming-out party. He was the first rookie in 61 years to have four hits in a Series game.

Crisp wasn't close to that -- he hit .268, with a .330 on-base percentage for the year, and only .182 in the postseason -- but he played one of the best center fields that has been seen in Boston in years. His long, running catch into the teeth of Fenway Park's center-field triangle that ended Game 7 of the ALCS against the Indians was just the most high-profile of many similar catches he made all year.

"That was a very, very tough play, and he made it look easy," Ellsbury says. "To me, you have to earn your position. Especially when you play for the Boston Red Sox. They're not going to say, 'Hey, you're the center fielder. Congratulations.' And to me, that's fine. That's what's going to make the team better. Competition. I think it'll be good, individually, for the both of us. And, in the end, I think it will make the team better.

"Whoever gets it is definitely deserving of it."

Ellsbury is doing all he can to show the Sox he wants to start. After consulting with the team, he spent much of the off season adding muscle with an eye toward maintaining his speed. He says he's more "explosive" now, and that the added strength will help him endure the rigors of a long season. It could help separate him from the light-hitting Crisp, too.

Ellsbury stuck to his weightlifting regimen throughout the off season despite all the added responsibilities that come with being a Series hero. Among those was a trip back to Madras in mid-November. The town held a parade and a rally in his honor. Officials presented him with the key to the city. The gym at Madras High, home of the White Buffaloes, was so full that people had to be turned away. Ellsbury talked, off the cuff, for 15 or 20 minutes.

"It was packed. All of the bleachers were full, the whole floor was full. It was pretty special for everybody in the town," Ellsbury says. "For people across the state of Oregon to come and spend that time with me and my family and my friends ... it was great."

The only time Ellsbury really broke his new exercise routine was for a four-or-five day vacation to the Hawaiian island of Lanai. "At first I was a little hesitant, 'cause my workouts were going so well. I was seeing improvements. I just didn't want to get away from that," he says. "But I did it. I'll definitely -- well, maybe -- I'll get a couple more [vacations] in next year."

Now, Ellsbury is trying to put together some decent spring at-bats while continuing his workouts. (That's what kept him in the clubhouse long after the game with the Pirates had ended.) If Crisp didn't note it last postseason, he knows it now: He's in for one heck of a fight.

"I don't like to fail," Ellsbury says, and then chuckles at the simplicity of it all. "I don't like losing at anything, whether it's cards or shooting hoops, playing horse in the back yard. I'm going to keep on going until I win.

"I just like to win. That pretty much sums it up."

And with that, he's finally off, but there can be no doubt that he'll be back to work soon enough.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.