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Man of the peoples

Ellsbury an inspiration at home, especially to Native Americans

Email|Print| Text size + By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / November 25, 2007

MADRAS, Ore. - Liz Nelson, his first-grade teacher, wore his 6-year-old handprint over her heart, on the sweater her volunteer room mother had made as a Christmas present, little hands drawn everywhere.

Judy Vanek, a nurse in town who had wheeled a patient fresh from surgery out of the recovery room so he could get back in time to watch the World Series, carried a wallet-sized photo of him from high school, posing with Amanda Bailey with a crown on his head, king of the "Cinderella Ball."

The Eagle Thunder Drum Group from Warm Springs, the nearby Indian reservation where his mother and father worked and he had first played T-ball, boomed out a number in his honor, before Chief Delvis Heath, in a full eagle-feather headdress, draped a medallion around his neck. Later, in another ceremony at the reservation, he and his father, Jim, would be presented with hand-woven blankets.

The Red Sox had sent an official Series banner, which hung behind one basket in the high school gym where he never lost a center jump, outleaping opponents a half-foot taller. Jim Reese, his old high school baseball coach, had driven more than two hours in the rain to be here. US Sen. Gordon Smith sent some of his people with the American flag that had flown over the Capitol the day after the Sox won the Series. And the 27-year-old mayor, Jason Hale, gave him the key to the city.

His mother, Margie, and the oldest of his three younger brothers, the one who most looked like him, signed autographs. And on this day, anyway, it seemed as if every kid in town had the same name, because there was only one appearing on the back of most every jersey: "Jacoby."

Jacoby Ellsbury had come home, to this central Oregon farm town tucked away on the far side of Mt. Hood, after a month in which no one talked about much else at the Black Bear Diner than their native son, even if Jennifer Aniston was in town, making a movie. The ride he took in a black convertible through the streets of Madras, behind the fire trucks and police cars and ahead of the hay wagon carrying the Warm Springs Reds, the undefeated Little League team? The parade in Boston had been sweet, he said, but it couldn't match this.

"He was born in this area," said his father, Jim Ellsbury, who for 28 years has worked this land as a forestry expert for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, while Margie Ellsbury, a full-blooded Navajo, worked on the reservation as an early-education and special-education specialist. "These are his people. For him to be honored this way is wonderful."

Little kids lined up to ask questions. "Do you have a girlfriend?" one said.

"Yes," he said. What's her name? "Kelsey."

Middle-aged men who reveled in his success offered unsolicited advice.

"Watch out for pretty women," one speaker warned. "Go watch 'The Natural' and see what happened to Roy Hobbs.

"But if you never get another hit, we love you for what you are and what you've become."

This whole year, from opening the season in Double A Portland (Maine), to his promotion to Triple A Pawtucket, to his callup to the big leagues, and finally, to a starring role in the World Series, Jacoby Ellsbury said he was never alone.

"The community experienced this with me," he said that night, reflecting on the day held in his honor. "I thought they were with me for every at-bat, every hit, every out. It was awesome to come back and see joy in everybody's faces."

Some hard times

Around here, joy can be hard to come by. The last time the world looked in on Madras, it was to share the horror of the death of another young native son, Tommy Tucker, a US Army private who had been kidnapped and brutally murdered while serving in Iraq two years ago. The town came together on that occasion, too, but with broken hearts.

Ordinary living in this high desert town of around 7,500 poses its challenges. The median income in Madras, according to the state's largest paper, the Oregonian, is $14,000 below the average annual income in the state, and recently there have been layoffs by a couple of the bigger employers in town, where the manufacture of wood products like particle board complements the growth of seed crops central to the local economy.

The tribes that the Warm Springs Federation comprises - the Paiute, Wasco, and Warm Springs - can claim ancestry back 10,000 years in Oregon. But since they were forced into coexistence on this often-forbidding patch of land a century and a half ago, they have dealt with the litany of problems familiar to Native American cultures: poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, and an unemployment rate, the Oregonian wrote, that can reach close to 50 percent in the winter months.

Four years ago, the newspaper published a five-part series on Warm Springs under the shocking heading, "A Place Where Children Die," highlighting a child mortality rate three times the average in the state and twice that of Native Americans nationally. Since 1990, the paper said, 59 children had died - in traffic accidents due to lax safety-belt and child-seat enforcement, a drowning in the nearby Deschutes River, domestic abuse, drug- and alcohol-related cases, illness. Warm Springs tribal leaders were appalled to be cast in such a negative light, but they initiated a number of reforms and a year later the paper reported that not a single child had died since the series.

Jacoby Ellsbury does not belong to the Warm Springs confederation; he is the first player of Navajo descent to make it to the big leagues, and is officially registered as a member of the Colorado River Indians Tribe, which counts the Navajo among its members. But he went to preschool and kindergarten in Warm Springs, went to school and played with the children of Warm Springs families, and has ties with other Warm Springs families through his parents.

His success, then, resonates, in both Madras and Warm Springs.

Memorable feats

"We have about 900 students at Madras High - about a third Native American, a third Caucasian, and a third Spanish," said Margaret Sturza, who is retiring after 30 years at the high school, the last 13 years as athletic director.

"You can see some of the divisions we have - language is a big barrier - and we have a lot of poverty here. But what Jacoby has done has really brought the community together. For kids to be able to see Jacoby - and they still know him because of his younger brothers, his family has been here a long time - it's huge that these kids can look at someone they know, 'If he can do this, I can do something, too.' "

Long before he made it to the big leagues, Madras had embraced Jacoby Ellsbury, mostly as a basketball player.

"This is a town that doesn't even have a movie theater," Sturza said. "Our high school athletes are very visible. Everybody knew Jacoby and followed him."

Evan Brown, the basketball coach, points to the basket where he saw Ellsbury - who had not yet reached his current height (6 feet 1 inch, tops) - dunk a basketball.

"He was so athletic and quick, he'd just get in the lane and do incredible things," said Brown. "He'd elevate against kids who were 6-7, and they'd be coming down and he'd still be in the air."

Reese, the baseball coach, said Ellsbury was not thrown out a single time while attempting to steal a base in high school.

"I don't remember ever sliding," Ellsbury said.

High school baseball in central Oregon can resemble the New England game.

"It wasn't unusual," Sturza said, "to have the temperature at game time be in the 30s, then get colder. People would stay in their cars and watch."

Ellsbury made it worth watching. But for as much as he did on the field, he is remembered most fondly for the kind of kid he was.

"I think of Jacoby Ellsbury," Reese said, "I think of integrity.

"He was just such a nice kid, quiet, did his thing," Sturza said. "Never flamboyant, just a kind, courteous kid. One of those kids who always did the right thing."

"He could have been a prima donna," Brown said. "But it's his character and work ethic that drive him."

"He's my kid," Jim Ellsbury said, "but he's a great kid."

Part of 'both worlds'

When he spoke in the gym at Madras, Ellsbury referred to his big-league debut, how he was so nervous he almost threw up ("by far the most nervous I've ever been in my life for anything") and how Josh Beckett, who was pitching that night, approached him with a message: "Don't screw it up."

Later, he was asked if Beckett was just kidding with him.

"I didn't get any joke out of it," Ellsbury said, unsmiling. "Maybe if you ask him, maybe he'll say, 'Yeah, I was just joking,' but he didn't give me a wink or a smile or something. It was, 'Don't screw it up.'

"He came up to me and said, 'Is this your first game?'

" 'Yeah.'

" 'Is this your debut?'

" 'Yeah.'

" 'Don't screw it up.' That's what he told me, right before the game."

In a way, Ellsbury has lived with that admonition ever since the Red Sox drafted him.

"This year in Double A and in Triple A, I felt so much more pressure than in the big leagues," he said. "The expectation of people wanting me to get there was pretty high. Once I got to the big leagues, I felt I could relax a little bit. OK, I'm there now. I'm here, I met the expectations, I met my dream.

"In a sense, it was easier to play, I felt, than in the minor leagues, where every night I felt like I had to get a couple of hits and play terrific defense. Being the competitive person I am, staying there is how to be successful, but to me, the expectations were off me once I got to the big leagues."

Those expectations have not lessened, he said, in this respect.

"I want to do the right things, on and off the field," he said. "There are certain things you should do. I am fortunate to be the first Navajo, but I feel there are some obligations, things I need to do and should do.

"Growing up on the reservation, even though it was for a short period of time [he lived for a year with his Navajo grandmother in Arizona when he was around 12], being so close to it, they can relate to me different than a Native American who didn't grow up on the reservation.

"I think I kind of have both worlds, because I lived on the reservation and off it. I can relate to a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. It's something I feel strongly about, that they can say, 'Jacoby did it, why can't I?' "

All those kids who called out to him on his day, "Jacoby, we love you"? He's listening.

"I feel like I should give back to the community," he said. "They've been supportive of me my whole life. It's something I feel like I want to do; it's something I feel I should do. I feel like people are chosen for a reason. God gave me the ability to play baseball, but there's a reason why He gave it to me."

And so he tells them of how he has already begun his offseason workouts, twice a day, six hours a day, working with a personal trainer in Portland, Matt James, until Christmas, then off to Arizona to work at Athletics Performance Institute. Tomorrow? If the rain holds off, he said, he'll go salmon fishing on the Deschutes with his brothers, but then it's back to work.

It has to be that way, he said. For himself. For the Red Sox. And for all those kids, especially the Native American ones, wearing "Jacoby" on their backs.

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