Jacoby Ellsbury burst onto the national stage when the Red Sox swept the Colorado Rockies in the 2007 World Series. With only 33 games of big league ball under his belt (he hit .353 in that sample), Ellsbury batted .438 and hit four doubles in the Fall Classic. He had a four-hit game in his first World Series start. His name came up every time the Sox tried to make a trade that winter, but the Sox always said no. And their faith in the flossy prospect was rewarded when Ellsbury took over the leadoff spot, batting .301 with a club-record 70 steals in 153 games in 2009.
Defensively, he was even better, it seemed. He started his big league career by playing 232 games without making an error. He made only two errors as Boston's starting center fielder in 2009.
Everything changed last winter. The Red Sox signed 37-year-old free agent centerfielder Mike Cameron and announced that Ellsbury would be moving to left field. Ellsbury said little about the obvious demotion (his agent, Scott Boras, did not seem pleased) and was playing his new position when he collided with third baseman Adrian Beltre while chasing a popup in Kansas City on April 11.
Here we are three months later and Ellsbury is Boston's nowhere man as the injury-riddled Sox sit in third place in the AL East at the All Star break.
Ellsbury has played only nine games all season and is clearly at odds with the Sox management, medical staff and teammates. And he's getting carved up on Boston's sports talk programs.
Ellsbury broke four ribs when he collided with Beltre. He's unhappy with the way he was treated. He says the Sox initially contended he had nothing more than a bruise and did not order an MRI because they don't routinely perform an MRI on bruises. After the four cracked ribs were finally discovered, Ellsbury missed 38 games while he rehabbed. When he returned in late May, he played only three games before going back on the disabled list. Sox physician Thomas Gill says Ellsbury broke a fifth rib making a tumbling catch in Philadelphia on May 23.
Ellsbury disputes the notion, claiming he suffered two sets of broken ribs in the initial crash with Beltre. Ellsbury said it was independent physician Dr. Lewis Yocum who discovered the "fifth fracture" on his back ribs. He also said Dr. Yocum found a strained latissimus muscle and an inflamed nerve in the back rib area.
No Sox player or official has openly questioned Ellsbury's willingness to play hurt, but it feels like something of a standoff between the player and the team. Ellsbury didn't help himself in his own clubhouse by electing to rehab at Athletes Performance Institute in Arizona for five weeks instead of traveling with the team and working under the supervision of Red Sox personnel.
Kevin Youkilis, who has been with the Sox since 2004, said, "there're a lot of guys here that are hurt and supporting the team. We wish Jacoby was here supporting us, too.''
One day after Youkilis made his remarks, Ellsbury rejoined his teammates in Toronto (the visit was scheduled, not a reaction to Youkilis) and came armed with notes, which he read for 11 minutes when he first met with the media. He retraced his injury history and said he had not traveled with the team because he did not want to be a distraction.
"For me to get better, the Red Sox thought it would be best if I went to Arizona,'' said the young outfielder.
Nobody's buying that one. When Theo Epstein was asked about Ellsbury's remarks, the Sox GM said, "That's behind us. The focus of Jacoby and the team remains on getting Jacoby healthy and ready to play as soon as possible.''
Ellsbury was scheduled to report to Fort Myers on Monday to begin running, throwing and hitting. The Sox are hoping he'll soon be ready for a minor league rehab assignment and would like to have him back in the lineup by early August. The Sox could use him. Marco Scutaro has been doing a nice job from the leadoff spot, but he's not a threat to run like Ellsbury. Cameron, meanwhile, has been battling an abdominal injury all season and has trouble playing back-to-back games.
The Cameron situation only makes Ellsbury look worse. The Sox have several players (Dustin Pedroia, Jason Varitek) who've been on crutches lately and Cameron's willingness to play hurt is a contrast to Ellsbury's long stint on the shelf.
Ever-diplomatic, Sox manager Terry Francona goes to great lengths to make his players look good.
"That's what we're going to see,'' Francona said when asked about Ellsbury's upcoming rehab assignment in the minors. "It hasn't been a lot up to this point. You're certainly not going to dive in 100 miles an hour, but I think that's part of the reason why we got him up here, to get a gauge on what he can do, how he feels when he does it, how much he can progress.''
Sinking slowly in the East at the break, the Sox are waiting for their speedy center fielder.