I hope you like the above “graphic.” It only took me about three and a half hours of fooling around with HTML before I got it “right.” So, enjoy.
Anyways, the headline says it all, except it doesn’t. It doesn’t convey the nuances and complexity of my feelings about this (I’m a very nuanced and complex person). Nor does the headline demonstrate the substantial growth as a human being I’ve undergone since Johnny Damon left Boston for the Bronx (semi-sarcasm), but here’s how I know I have matured: I don’t hate Jacoby Ellsbury.
Sure I’m sad, but I don’t despise him with the same vitriolic passion that I (irrationally, childishly) felt towards Johnny Damon when he sold his soul to the Devil (the incendiary rhetoric is more a comment on today’s sports writing than it is an accurate representation of my feelings). Strangely, I very vividly remember the day that Johnny Damon signed with the Yankees. After Nomar’s departure via trade in the summer of 2004, Johnny Damon became my favorite Red Sox. I solemnly folded my Nomar jerseys, tucked them away in a special place, and proceeded to don a Johnny Damon jersey. I never could have imagined what was about to come, in the fall of 2004. There’s no need to recapitulate October 2004 here, as I’m sure most sports fans are familiar with the history that was made, nearly ten years ago now.
Needless to say, Johnny Damon endeared himself to Red Sox nation as the de facto leader of “The Idiots” that won the 2004 World Series. He further beguiled us with charming statements like this, “There’s no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they’re going to come after me hard. It’s definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It’s not what I need…I’d like to finish my career here,” (Source). Red Sox Nation collectively swooned, and our love affair with Johnny Damon deepened. Little did we know, seven months later, that he’d abruptly break it off, “I made contact with them and told [Francona] they really need to get going because if not, I’m going to be on another team,” Damon said. “Unfortunately, Boston had their plans. I’m not sure if they knew I meant it, but now I’m a Yankee, and hopefully they can go off and get the other center fielders they’ve been courting for the past month or so,” (Source). And with that, he was gone. He had left us for another.
I remember driving down El Cajon Blvd in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego and listening to the news of the signing on the radio. This was well before Twitter—which is kind of strange to think about—so it took a little while before the rumors were confirmed to be true. I was floored. This man had been one of the faces of the franchise. He promised us we’d be together forever (or at the very least he’d never leave us for our enemy, which I suppose is some small consolation. #emotionsarecomplex). During the 2004 championship run, unbreakable bonds were formed between the players and the fanbase. Johnny Damon’s signing with the Yankees felt like the ultimate betrayal. It felt calculated, too; it felt as if it was engineered to hurt.
But of course, that’s not how it was, even though that was how it felt. The Red Sox did what they thought was best for the team, and Johnny Damon did what was best for himself and his family. Why should we begrudge him that? Perhaps he never should have said that he’d never be a Yankee, but in reality, that statement made it all but inevitable that he’d be in pinstripes come Opening Day 2006. Johnny Damon was an integral part of the team that broke the curse, and we loved him for it. He was an exceptional player during his Red Sox tenure, and he gave us his all. After the 2005 season, someone else just wanted him more than we did. It’s not like we couldn’t afford him, we just didn’t want him as much as someone else did. Seriously think about what you would do if you were him. Perhaps the situation would be different if he was a Pittsburgh Pirate or a Tampa Bay Ray, but he was a Boston Red Sox, meaning his team had the means to retain him and refrained from doing so. I hated him for leaving. I felt cold and empty (for a couple days, tops. I promise), but I got over it, and before too long we had Jacoby Ellsbury, electrifying the team to their second championship in four seasons.
I’ll avoid a lengthy summary of Ellsbury’s career with the Red Sox—we have Wikipedia for that—in favor of addressing the implications this has for the Red Sox 2014 season. However, I do want to take a cursory look at his career stats.
Ellsbury hardly emblematizes durability, but his injuries have been mostly of the “freakish” variety. Nevertheless, injuries have hampered his value to a degree and have made it somewhat difficult to know what to expect from him going forward. What we do know is he is tremendously talented, and when he’s healthy he is one of the best, if not the best, leadoff hitters in the major leagues. From his MLB debut until now, he has averaged nearly 4.0 fWAR per season. He’s earned about $20 million playing for the Red Sox, while providing his team with nearly $120 million of value (Ellsbury has been worth nearly 24 fWAR and a win is generally considered to be worth about $5 million on the free agent market). His career on-base percentage is .350 and he’s averaged over forty steals per season. He hits for above average power for a centerfielder, and his defense is extraordinary. You really don’t need me to tell you how good he is; you and I both know that he’s an outstanding player.
(I thought about writing a paragraph here about what his career will look like for the Yankees, but Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs penned a brilliant piece about this. I urge you to check it out here. I also don’t want to write about how I think he’ll do for the Yankees because it’s depressing).
So what will the Red Sox do without Ellsbury? Oh, just slot the 31st best prospect in all of baseball into centerfield. Now, in some ways that sounds more exciting than it is. Jackie Bradley, Jr. has all the tools to become a very valuable major leaguer, but he may not be the generational talent we all hope for when a top prospect breaks into the Bigs (that’s what we have Xander Bogaerts for). Bradley, Jr. doesn’t project to have the same kind of power that Ellsbury displayed in his near-MVP season in 2011, nor is he expected to swipe as many bases. However, he’s considered one of the best defenders in all of the minor leagues. Here’s how Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus describes his strengths, “Special baseball instincts; plus glove; strong arm; average speed, but preternatural feel for position; moves before ball is put in play; precise routes and angles; plus-plus overall profile at premium position.” He’s also projected to be a solid on-base contributor; Parks continues, “advanced approach at the plate; good pitch-recognition skills; knows his pitch pocket and attacks; solid-average hit tool; tough out,” (Source). Steamer Projections predicts Jackie Bradley, Jr. will be worth 2.3 fWAR next season, which is pretty good for a first year player making the league minimum.
While I am looking forward to the Jackie Bradley, Jr. era, I’ll miss Jacoby Ellsbury, perhaps more than I realize. It’s eerie how reminiscent this whole affair is of the Johnny Damon signing, but somehow it stings less. Even though the Yankees are getting a younger, better player than Damon was when he signed with them, I’m not as upset. Maybe it means I’ve grown as a human being, but more than likely it means nothing. And although I may not be mad, I am sad. It’ll be so strange seeing Jacoby Ellsbury in pinstripes. I can hardly imagine him patrolling centerfield at Yankee Stadium; it feels wrong. Images of him stepping up to the plate, being cheered on by Yankee fans, coincide with feelings of unshakeable melancholy. That’s not healthy, I know, but it’s how I feel.
So, maybe tonight, I’ll load up some World Series highlights, pour myself a stiff drink, light a candle, and put on my Jacoby Ellsbury shirsey for one last rodeo, before I tuck it away with my Johnny Damon jersey and my faith in humanity’s capacity for loyalty.
Maybe then, the nightmares will end: