The pangs of the Yankee reaper

2019-11-21 JacobyEllsburyRundown
Jacoby Ellsbury (2), here Houdini-ing a rundown in the 2013 World Series, before the injuries finally started sapping the talent. (SBNation gif.)

Things got this bad for Jacoby Ellsbury: when he announced his daughter’s birth on the Fourth of July, on Instagram, he got hammered by Yankee fans indignant over the big contract to the too-often-injured outfielder. Well, nobody said Joe and Jane Fan were immunised completely against the stupid virus.

Such Yankee fans can breathe now. Ellsbury is still the first of Navajo descent (courtesy of his mother) to play major league baseball, but  he isn’t a Yankee anymore. The Yankees finally decided to cut him loose and eat the remaining $26 million Ellsbury’s owed on his original seven-year, $153 million deal. Contrary to what too-popular belief still says, neither side is to blame for Ellsbury’s none-too-fantastic voyage.

What does it do to a man to know that not only could he not perform his duties at his line of work because his body kept telling him “not so fast, dude,” but that people observing his particular company made him a hate object for no crime worse than the injuries he incurred on the job?

It’s as if being injured on the job at all equals a character flaw, especially if you happen to be paid a phenomenally handsome salary. On the flip side, it’s as if being paid a phenomenally handsome salary equals some sort of immunity to earthly harm. Here’s a bulletin for you: Handing Clark Kent a nine-figure payday doesn’t make him Superman.

And one of the reasons Ellsbury wouldn’t even think about listening to the Red Sox about staying in the family when he reached free agency after the 2013 World Series conquest was because he was alienated in the clubhouse after he heard one too many whisperings that he wasn’t exactly in a hurry to get back on the field after previous injuries.

It’s hell if you do and hell if you don’t for a professional athlete. Return too soon from an injury and you risk re-injury; return not soon enough (in whose medical opinion?) and you risk being dismissed as a fragile goldbrick.

The 2019 Yankees were so injury riddled that it was easy to joke that their yearbook was probably The New England Journal of Medicine, but Ellsbury was probably one Yankee who wasn’t laughing. Not even like Figaro that he might not weep. He’d been so often injured for so long that he might be tempted to name his memoir, should he write one, The Pangs of the Yankee Reaper.

Sooner or later, too, you suspected injuries would sap Ellsbury’s baseball talents even before he became a Yankee. Red Sox Nation at least had the pleasures of Ellsbury’s talents helping them noticeably enough to a pair of World Series rings including in his rookie season. Including but not limited to his magnificent Game Six rundown dodge in the 2013 Series.

Maybe that’s why Yankee fans showed as much empathy for his on-the-job slings, arrows, and whatever other medicals he had to bear as the empathy a barracuda shows for its prey. But now, let me count the ways Ellsbury didn’t get injured on the job.

He didn’t get a bite in the ass sliding into second thanks to having left the false teeth he doesn’t have in his back pocket. (An otherwise nondescript pitcher, Clarence Bethen, thought of that in 1923.)

He didn’t turn his knee into bone meal chasing Jill St. John down the ski slopes. (Freshly-crowned Cy Young Award winner and chairman of baseball’s Future Dentists of America, Jim Lonborg, was rumoured to have done just that when he tore his knee apart in a winter skiing accident after the 1967 season.)

He didn’t get the brilliant idea to demonstrate his slam-dunk technique on a storefront awning, catch his ring in the mechanism, and cost himself a season with shredded hand ligaments for his trouble. (Braves relief pitcher Cecil Upshaw slam dunked his way out of the 1970 season that way.)

He didn’t adopt an exercise routine that included running backwards and thus running into a gopher hole causing himself a back injury. (Pitcher Jamie Easterly did, however, in the 1980s.)

He didn’t break a toe running from his kitchen back to his living room because he couldn’t bear to miss watching a buddy at the plate on television. (Hall of Famer George Brett was so desperate not to miss a Bill Buckner at-bat that he ran from his kitchen and busted his toe.)

He didn’t strain or shred his back pulling his cowboy boots up. (Hall of Famer Wade Boggs once did.)

He didn’t fall asleep with a bitter-cold ice bag on his foot and awaken with a case of frostbite causing him to miss a few games—in August. (Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson stone cold did.)

He didn’t get his face badly sunburned on a tanning bed. (Marty Cordova was the genius who forgot the Coppertone.)

He isn’t known to have attended motivational speeches, necessarily, but if he did he probably had too much sense not to think after hearing one that he could tear the world’s thickest telephone book in half without dislocating his shoulder. (Relief pitcher Steve Sparks had to learn the hard way.)

He never once thought, we think, that he could haul a full heavy side of deer meat up a flight of stairs until the venison-to-be won the weight division by sending him flying downstairs and into a broken collarbone. (Clint Barmes, alas, lost that fight in 2010.)

He was part of no few on-field celebrations, we’re sure, but he never tore his left meniscus by smooshing a pie in a teammate’s face during a postgame interview. (Not the way Marlins utilityman Chris Coghlan did nailing Wes Helms in 2010.)

He’s not the genius who forgot to look all ways while reaching for a fallen sock before the suitcase his wife fiddled with fell over and landed on his hand, causing the injury he tried to hide until even the blind saw he couldn’t grip his bat right. (Jonathan Lucroy was such a genius, in 2012.)

And, he didn’t dislocate his ankle while trampolining with one of his children. (Joba Chamberlain jumped into that while with his then five-year-old son in 2012.)

Ellsbury once broke the Red Sox’s consecutive-game errorless streak record. He also once scored on a wild pitch—from second base. He was once so swift on the bases and in the outfield that he could have challenged the Road Runner to a foot race and won by a neck. He hit four doubles and stole a base in the 2007 World Series; he looked like he’d secure himself as one of the Red Sox’s all-time greats.

At least, he did until he ran into a human earth mover named Adrian Beltre at third base in an April 2010 game. He came back too soon from four hairline rib fractures, felt enough soreness to see a thoracic specialist who recommended more rest and rehab, rejoined the Red Sox early that August, and re-injured the ribs on a play against the Rangers later that month.

Then Ellsbury won the American League’s Comeback Player of the Year for 2011, not to mention both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger and a second-place Most Valuable Player finish, while being practically the only Red Sox player who didn’t collapse during that September and thus invite the Bobby Valentine nightmare of 2012.

Ellsbury smashed his shoulder up trying to break up a double play early in the nightmare. He returned in July, then almost made it injury free through 2013. Oops. Compression fracture in his right foot from fouling a ball off the hoof in late August. Returned in time to shine in that run to and through the World Series.

Fed up enough with the false whispering that he just didn’t like to rehab his injuries fast enough (for whom, folks?) that when the Yankees reached out to him with a yummy contract he couldn’t possibly say no.

In Year One of his Yankee tenure he performed, well, the way Jacoby Ellsbury was supposed to perform, including leading the American League with his 22.7 power/speed number. And it was the last season in which being injury free enabled him to perform that well.

Injuries, unfortunately, sap and catch up to players little by little. The Ellsbury Dough Boy had more than his share before becoming a Yankee. And then . . . and then . . . and then . . . and then along came:

2015—Right knee sprain on 20 May; out two months, rest of the season nothing to brag about, unfortunately.

2016—Uninjured but production falling further, including his lowest total stolen bases to that point during a healthy season.

2017—Smashed his head against the center field wall while making a highlight-reel catch. Concussion. Missed 29 games and lost his center field job to Aaron Hicks, but somehow managed to break Pete Rose’s career record for reaching base on catcher’s interference, doing it for the thirtieth time on 11 September, which also happened to be his 34th birthday.

2018—Strained his right oblique at spring training’s beginning. Turned up in April’s beginning with a torn hip labrum. Missed the entire season (and underwent surgery in August) because of it.

2019—Started the season on the injured list with a foot injury; also turned up with plantar fasciitis in the foot (the same injury plus knee issues that reduced Albert Pujols as an Angel to a barely replacement-level designated hitter) and another shoulder injury. Took until September for the Yankees to admit Ellsbury was lost for the year.

Not one of those injuries was caused by anything other than playing the game or performing other baseball-related activity. Remember that before you continue condemning Ellsbury the man or the Yankees as a team over him. He didn’t come to the Yankees believing his previous injuries began draining the talent that was once so electrifying, and he didn’t put on the pinstripes expecting to become an orthopedic experiment, either.

The 36-year-old is said to be finishing rehab and preparing to play in 2020 if there’s a team willing to have him. Ignore the jerk brigades and wish him well. Maybe even wish that he decides at last that his spirit may still be willing but his body’s already had notarised, “Don’t even think about it.”

It’s not easy for baseball players to get the game out of their systems, but if Ellsburry chooses to retire at last, instead of offering up any further sacrifices to the Elysian Field gods, who can blame him?

“Some people give their bodies to science. I gave mine to baseball,” Ron Hunt once said after a career in which his most notable accomplishment was teaching himself to be hit by pitches and taking every one of his 243 plunks. (Hunt led the Show in such plunks six straight during his twelve seasons.)

Ellsbury gave a lot more of his body to baseball than even Hunt did. He has three stolen base championships (two of which led the Show), one total bases championship (364 in 2011), one triples championship (ten in 2010), and a few million dollars in the bank for it. It’s the least he could have gotten for his sacrifices.

But if they ever come up with a surefire immunity to the stupid virus, fans who think on-the-job baseball injuries equal character flaws or teams whose brain trusts have suffered aneurysms should be first to get the shots.

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