Let's start with a quiz. The category is Boston sports and the media.
Let's say there's a young, up and coming athlete in town. Which team he plays for is not important. He's a unique talent. Exciting and charismatic. In a few short years he's already broken club records and won a championship. But early in one season, he gets injured on the field while trying to make a play and is out for a long time. There's some controversy about the exact nature of the injury. Some in the Boston media start to question why he's taking so long to get back out. There are rumblings that he's soft. And disgruntled. Eventually he gets back on the field only to re-aggravate his condition and is lost for the season. Rumors spread that his teammates think he's dogging it. The kid is taken apart, psychoanalyzed, slandered, libeled, called words you never heard in the Bible. One radio nitwit Tweets about him and uses the Hiroshima bomb of athletic insults: the dreaded the P-word.
Now say this same much-maligned player comes back the following year healthy. He misses next to no playing time. He plays hard. Not only plays as well as before, he improves. He shows skills no one thought he had. The club is winning, he's a major contributor and even drawing some MVP talk. Now here's where the quiz comes in. Those same media types who ran down and disparaged him the year before when he was hurt and couldn't get on the field:
A) Admit they were wrong
B) Apologize profusely and vow to help the kid clear his name
C) Conduct a spirited dialogue among themselves about the dangers of rushing to judgment when destroying the reputation of a young ballplayer
D) Say nothing and pretend none of it ever happened.
If you said anything other than 'D' you're obviously new around here. Welcome to our city.
In case you hadn't figured it out by now, the player in question is obviously Jacoby Ellsbury, who last season was the subject of a public stoning not seen in this town since the Witch Trials. And believe me, Boston has some experience at this witchhunt business. The treatment Ellsbury got was like Hester Prynne, Sacco and Vanzetti and SpyGate all rolled into one.
To recap, briefly: In early April of last year, Ellsbury was hustling after a foul ball. Also going after it was Red Sox long-term-temp third baseman Adrian Beltre, who ran into him. Now unless everything I've been taught about baseball from Weymouth Farm League on down is wrong, the outfielder in that situation calls for the ball. So you'd think Beltre would've been criticized for boneheadness on the play. I sure did. But that was only my first mistake.
My second was assuming Ellsbury would get the benefit of the doubt on this. He didn't. The team announced he'd suffered “bruised ribs” and would be back in the lineup in no time. When he wasn't, the grumblings started. He tried painkillers but they couldn't help him swing a bat. It was suggested everyone is playing hurt and he just wasn't tough enough. He said he'd seek a second opinion. He was called a malcontent. Turns out he had four fractured ribs. He came back in early August, collided again with Texas pitcher Tommy Hunter and was done for the year.
At one point in all this, Ellsbury took the unheard of step of reading a prepared statement in the Toronto visitors dugout to put his side of the story on the record. It was considered weird by most people. But I remember thinking he looked like Andy Dufresne trying to convince the warden that he should listen to the story of the new, Elvis-looking inmate who might be able to get his conviction overturned. Of course, the warden threw Andy in the hole and had Elvis guy shot. Which is more or less how Jacoby's statement was received.
The third mistake I made was not being ready for the media s-storm that followed. The sports press smelled star ballplayer blood in the water like they hadn't been able to feed on in a while and the frenzy ensued. That's when Ellsbury got Enola Gayed with the P-word. Which was more funny and ironic than infuriating because it came from a guy who looks like his only involvement with sports should be bringing you live aerial coverage above football stadiums with Snoopy painted on his sides.
But it wasn't just one guy. It was everywhere. It was as if the media in town saw the chance to flip the script and go back to the way things used to be around here. The good old days (for them) when the sports landscape was an inverted pyramid with them at the top and the athletes and coaches at the bottom. A paradigm in which they formed public opinion and made and broke people the way Max Mercy did Roy Hobbs. A model that stopped working once the championships started coming and their influence disappeared.
What Ellsbury got treated to last year was what pre-Duckboat Sox players always got. A chain of great Red Sox from Nomar to Boggs to Rice to Yaz to Williams. (Note: I could throw Clemens in there too, but you can't say a bad thing about Clemens I won't agree with.) For the life of me though, I couldn't make sense of it in his case. I couldn't figure out why he of all people would be subject to the Boston media Dutch Oven Treatment.
He hustles. He does things no one else in our lifetimes has ever been able to do. He's fascinating to watch. I was at his first Major League start and he'd already established he was one of those rare guys the park starts buzzing about when he comes out onto the on-deck circle. And in that game he scored on a wild pitch, from second. Most importantly, he played his butt off late in '07, saved the club from a Coco Crisp slump, and was a superstar in the postseason. And, I could add, won America millions of 10-cent tacos.
Call me a rumpswabbing, cheerleading fanboy, but I don't see how that didn't earn the kid the benefit of the doubt. After all, this wasn't some mysterious injury no one could explain. He wasn't claiming the Rib Injury Fairy came to him in his sleep. There was no story about a foul ball that struck him in batting practice no one remembers hitting. This wasn't a Boston fire fighter slipping on a puddle in the back room while filling in for his boss so he'd have more time to do bodybuilding. We all saw the play that busted his ribs a million times on replay. But for some reason I've never been able to wrap my brain around, he flat out got convicted of faking it in the court of public opinion.
So how's he doing now that he's healthy? Try he's in or near the Top 10 in the American League in Batting, OBP, Slugging, OPS and Extra Base hits. Hitting leadoff, he's a remarkable 11th in the AL. He's second behind the leader in steals. His No. 1 job is to score runs, and he's second there. And he's showing power few could've imagined he'd have, with an astonishing 24 HRs at the end of August. He missed one game all season prior to being held out of the lineup by Terry Francona after being drilled in the spine with a pitch that was probably faster than the bullet that put Larry Flynt in a wheelchair. So much for saying he can't make it through a full season.
Which brings me to my final mistake. I thought maybe, giving the fact that Jacoby Ellsbury is on such a Redemption Tour that he should sell t-shirts with all the stops and dates listed on the back, I'd hear one of the critics who harped on him so unfairly last year own up to their mistake. Well unless that sounds like crickets, it hasn't happened. And it won't.
During the Reagan Adminstration, he had a Secretary of Labor named Ray Donovan, who was indicted by a Bronx grand jury for being part of a bribery scam involving a NYC subway railway construction contract and the mafia. After he was acquitted, Donovan famously asked, “Now where do I go to get my reputation back?”
Ellsbury has won his reputation back. I suppose that will have to do because an apology for trashing it in the first place is too much to ask.