PHOENIX — At the start of 2010, plenty of people were ready to jump on the Jacoby Ellsbury bandwagon. The dynamic outfielder had emerged in his first two-plus big league seasons as an offensive difference-maker, a catalyst in the truest sense of the word.
On the field, there were hints that he was capable of more, flashes of more power and a steadily improving ability to get on base. Red Sox and rival talent evaluators alike believed that the 2010 campaign was the one in which he would establish himself as one of the best all-around players in the game.
Few offered such lofty expectations for the center fielder when he arrived in spring training this year. After he had been limited to just 18 games by five rib fractures in 2010, no one knew quite what to anticipate after he’d lost nearly a full season of time to continue his development. Certainly, expectations were, at best, measured.
At the beginning of spring training, Red Sox manager Terry Francona suggested that while he ultimately hoped that Ellsbury would reclaim his spot at the top of the order, that outcome might not be at the start of the year. Moreover, he and other Sox officials were candid in admitting that they would be looking to see whether the missed time would cause the 27-year-old to take a step backward in his career.
In retrospect, the concern appears to have been wildly misplaced. Through the first half of the year, Ellsbury has enjoyed the breakout campaign that was forecast for him a year earlier.
He arrives in Phoenix for his first All-Star Game toting a .316 average, .377 OBP, .490 slugging percentage and .867 OPS, all of which would be career highs. He leads the AL with 28 steals. His 11 homers already represent a new career best. He has been even better at the top of the Sox order, leading all AL leadoff hitters in average (.327), OBP (.385), slugging (.495) and OPS (.881).
In one sense, it is unlikely — stunning even — that Ellsbury has been able to not only return to his prior levels but is zooming well past them. In another sense, it is anything but.
There is, after all, precedent for Ellsbury to amaze in his return from injuries, even those that echoed the broken ribs that denied him the opportunity to play last year. A parallel situation occurred when Ellsbury was a star multisport sophomore at Oregon's Madras High School.
“He laid out for a catch on the sidelines in football,” recalled Bruce Reece, Ellsbury’s baseball coach and also an assistant football and basketball coach during the outfielder’s time at Madras. “It was a routine deal. He comes up, and he can’t get up. It’s sophomore year and he’s down [with a broken collarbone]. His junior year, he gets undercut in basketball and breaks it again. So he actually had two [breaks]. It was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Ellsbury could not lift weights and build his conditioning as a result of the injury. Reece feared that he would not be the same player when he returned to the baseball field. He was wrong.
“It was as if he didn’t miss a beat,” Reece said. “We as a coaching staff were just amazed — here he is, back on the court, back on the baseball field.”
Ellsbury refers to his broken ribs of 2010 as “by far” the most serious injury he’s ever suffered. Yet until he took the knee to the chest from Adrian Beltre, the broken collarbone as a high school sophomore was the defining injury of his athletic career. His ability to deal with that and other injuries, in some ways, foreshadowed what he’s been able to do in 2011.
“I was literally [wearing] the sling, went to the doctor and he said, ‘All right, you can take it off,’ ” Ellsbury remembered. “No rehab — nothing. First game: home run. It was definitely ahead of schedule. I can heal quick.
“If the doctor tells me six weeks, I want to do it in three. I broke my thumb one time playing football. [I had a] cast, played the rest of the season, played in the playoffs with a huge cast. I remember I had a pick with one hand in a state playoff game, cut it off myself for the next game. I just said, ‘I don’t need this.’ Injuries had never been an issue for me.”
For his part, Reece felt a sickening sense of deja vu when he saw Ellsbury suffer his injury a year ago and then suffer subsequent aggravations of his condition. Yet given what he had seen the outfielder do as a 16-year-old, he is anything but shocked by the way in which he has rebounded from his injuries of last season.
"It doesn't surprise me at all," Reece said of the outfielder's emergence as an All-Star. "That's his nature. He's so competitive."
Perhaps more important than that precedent was Ellsbury’s determination during the offseason to re-establish himself. A couple of offseasons ago, he moved from Oregon to Arizona so that he could be closer to the Athletes’ Performance facility during the winter. While he has been committed to the Athletes' Performance program for years, this offseason he took it to another level.
He did not want to miss a single day of his winter workouts. Instead of making his usual trip back to Madras for the holidays, Ellsbury had his family fly to Arizona to see him.
“I didn’t want to miss a day of training,” he said. “My sole focus was to get back to where I left off [before] 2010.”
He did so with a purpose. He was not content simply to be healthy. He wanted to be a force in coming back for the 2011 season, a goal he articulated to his physical therapist at Athletes' Performance shortly before the start of the season.
“I told her something like, ‘I’ll see you out here during the All-Star break,’ ” Ellsbury recalled with a laugh. “I’ll definitely tell my family those sorts of things. But I don’t usually tell people that kind of stuff. I usually don’t like talking about myself for that matter. You want to ask me about my teammates, I’m glad to talk about them. But personal accomplishments, it’s kind of how I grew up — I don’t want to talk about that kind of thing.”
Yet while the outfielder prefers not to discuss his ambitions — even after a dazzling game, he’ll often offer fairly bland platitudes or speak narrowly of goals such as having good, consistent at-bats, putting a good swing on the ball, and other lines taken from the "Bull Durham" school of athlete-speak — that preference should not be confused with a lack of ambition.
The Sox always have thought, dating to the draft, that Ellsbury has a star player’s charisma, carrying himself as a player who wants to be noticed for his excellence. The outfielder suggests that he is driven less by that attention than by the quest for excellence as an end in itself.
“When I prepare and train, I always train to be the best. That’s the only way I think you can improve,” Ellsbury said. “If you’re satisfied with where you’re at, you’re probably going to regress, just because you’re not getting your workouts in, you’re not putting everything towards that goal.
“My goal is always to be the best player I can be. If that’s the All-Star team, well, it’s kind of hard, just because you can’t really help it. Obviously, your performance on the field can help dictate whether you’re an All-Star or not, but whether you make it or not, you don’t really have any control over the decision.”
That said, there is satisfaction in what he has accomplished and how far he has come. Ellsbury has spent most of the 2011 season skipping past and around the questions about his lost 2010 season, and with good reason. After all, what good can come of mulling a time of unhappiness once you have moved on from that point?
Still, from the position of having many question and wonder about his dedication to one in which his performance is being celebrated, there is satisfaction. In that sense, the recognition of his first All-Star Game is deeply meaningful.
“I’m training as hard as I can. I’m training to be the best player I can be,” Ellsbury said. “It’s very gratifying and I’m very proud, from what happened last year to where I am now, to be selected by my peers.”
Yet even that satisfaction is secondary to another one. In 2010, Ellsbury played in just 18 of 162 Red Sox games — exactly one out of every nine contests. This year, he arrives at the All-Star break having played in 89 of the Red Sox’ 90 contests.
And that — along with his team’s first-place first-half performance — is the true source of his enthusiasm for the season to date. There is joy in being on the field, joy in being back doing the thing he loves, at a level that he has never before achieved.
“I love competition, no matter what it is,” Ellsbury said. “When I didn’t have baseball last year, it was really tough because I just couldn’t do anything — couldn’t compete, couldn’t do anything. So, that’s been the best thing — just being out on the field every day and having my teammates know that I’m going to be out there. I just like being out there playing — being out there every single day competing.”