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Jacoby Ellsbury was never soft, but deal with Yankees proves he was a mercenary

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 3, 2013 08:56 PM

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There have been two longstanding narratives attached to Jacoby Ellsbury, the two-time Red Sox champion and filthy-rich new Yankee.

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The first is that he is, to use a gentler synonym than you might hear on sports radio, soft.

That one is pure nonsense. Always has been.

Did he miss a lot of time with injuries? He sure did. He played just 18 games in 2010 after suffering multiple rib fractures in a collision with a brick-wall-on-wheels named Adrian Beltre, and the soft label was slapped on him after he took his time coming back after a misdiagnosis by team doctors.

I don't know how you fault anyone for being wary in that situation. If my doctor misdiagnosed anything, let alone a serious injury that could alter a career, reputation and earning power, he'd no longer be my doctor.

If Ellsbury held a grudge -- against the team, or those who yelped about his toughness -- who could blame him?

Two seasons later, he was limited to 73 games after the Rays' Reid Brignac dropped all of his 190 pounds on Ellsbury's shoulder during a hard slide at second base in the fourth inning of the seventh game of the season.

It was a brutal injury, another unavoidable blunt-force trauma that cost him a large part of a season. The injury would have put even the grubbiest of dirt dogs on the DL for multiple months. It was lousy luck, not a sign of fragility.

Funny how those who call him soft had little to say when he played this postseason with a swollen, purple-hued hand and on a foot that still wasn't fully healed from a late-season stress fracture.

His performance when he was healthy was anything but soft. Ellsbury habitually played his best in big moments, contributing in an essential way on two championship teams during his seven seasons in Boston.

In 2007, he was a sudden flash through the October sky, hitting .438 with a 1.138 OPS as a rookie during the Red Sox' World Series sweep of the Colorado Rockies, including four doubles in Game 2.

This season, he put up a 1.137 OPS in the ALDS against the Rays, had a .423 on-base percentage against the Tigers in the ALCS, and finished the postseason with a .344 batting average and an .846 OPS while providing the usual superb base-running and center field defense.

Even in the seasons when the Red Sox didn't prevail at the end, Ellsbury played his best in the biggest moments. During the infamous September collapse of 2011, while everyone around him save for Marco Scutaro was either slumping or swallowing their tongue, Ellsbury put up a .358/.400/.667 slash-line with eight homers and 21 RBIs in the final month. The Sox, 7-23 down the stretch, fell apart in spite of him.

As for that second narrative ... well, let's just say this one was confirmed early Tuesday evening when the news broke that Ellsbury, barely a month removed from a duckboat ride through the heart of Boston, would be joining the rival Yankees on a seven-year, $153 million deal with an option for 2021.

Jacoby Ellsbury, mercenary? Hell, yes, we were onto that one all along. The narrative was that he was going to the highest bidder, and he did.

The suspicion, born from his choice of agents (Scott Boras) and the sense that the lyrics "Boston, you're my home" never resonated with him, proved true Tuesday night when his salary and destination were revealed.

So much for that quaint notion that the Oregon native was bound for a smaller market, lonely and dreaming of the West Coast, a Mariner- or Padre-to-be.

I have to admit, I didn't think it would be the Yankees this time, if only for the existence of Brett Gardner (sort of a junior varsity Ellsbury). I was waiting for the Cubs to swoop in, and so my reaction was probably a common one:

The Yankees? Really? Ah, dammit. It's Johnny Damon all over again.

Taking the visceral reaction out of it, it's not quite the same as the Damon departure. Damon was already an established mercenary, a player who came to the Red Sox as a free agent, joining his third organization at the time.

Ellsbury was home grown, acquired with the 23d pick in the 2005 draft, their compensation for losing Orlando Cabrera to the Angels. He was our guy, the prospect we followed all the way up the ladder, from Lowell to Wilmington to Portland to Pawtucket.

Of course, Damon's the one who said he'd never play for the Yankees. Ellsbury never made such promises. Damon had to deal with the backlash from that, which included some vigorous and perhaps misguided booing at Fenway in his later years. Ellsbury makes his Yankee debut at Fenway on April 22. He probably should prepare to hear the boos of the jilted.

Damon's performance in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS gets him the permanent benefit of the doubt here. Even though he won a ring in New York, I always figured his presence was a constant reminder of that night all the ghosts were overcome. They took him, but they couldn't take Sox fans' memories. I feel the same way about Ellsbury. He won here. Twice. They can take him, but they can't take that.

This is a fine deal for the Yankees, at least in the short term, and I imagine we won't be hearing from New York fans claiming Ellsbury is no better than Gardner anymore.

He's three years younger than Damon was when he donned pinstripes. He'll be entering his age-30 season as a plus defender in center, the most effective base stealer in baseball, and a versatile offensive player with a .350 career on-base percentage.

His skill-set tends to age well, he keeps himself in tip-top shape, and even if the short porch in right field at the faux Yankee Stadium doesn't boost his home run power to 2011 levels (when he hit that outlying 32), the ballpark still should be a great fit.

Sure, they'll be paying for his late prime and the early years of his decline, just as they did for fellow noodle-armed outfielders Damon and Bernie Williams. But the Yankee way is to pay for the present and not sweat the future. He'll help in the present as the Yankees try to reestablish relevance.

I hope no one faults Ben Cherington an iota for not matching the offer. The prudence is admirable, and I look forward to watching Jackie Bradley Jr. improve the Sox' center field defense.

But we can appreciate the disciplined approach and still recognize that Ellsbury will be missed. I'm not sure he ever got enough credit for how good he really was, probably because of that first narrative.

But he was a fun, dynamic player -- remember when he first came up and scored from second base on a wild pitch? He should have been the MVP in 2011.

Now he's no longer ours. He's theirs. The New York tabloids will surely gloat Wednesday about stealing him away.

But at least we're left with this amusement: the Yankees are now resigned to raiding the Red Sox for players with championship pedigrees.

When Boras inevitably sends Bradley to the Bronx for $250 million seven years from now, here's hoping he brings as many accomplishments and more rings than Ellsbury will.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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