Why Jacoby Ellsbury won’t be cheered like Johnny Damon in Boston


Apr 16, 2014; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (22) makes a catch on ball hit by Chicago Cubs catcher John Baker (12) in the 6th inning as the New York Yankees take on the Chicago Cubs in 1st game of the day/night double header at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: William Perlman/The Star-Ledger via USA TODAY Sports

The comparison is inevitable. Both Jacoby Ellsbury and Johnny Damon played center field, batted leadoff, and were World Series champions for the Boston Red Sox.

In fact, if you look at the slash lines:

Ellsbury: .297/.350/.439
Damon: .295/.362/.441

They were essentially the same hitter during their tenure in Boston.

Both also accepted a financial windfall to join the Yankees and could already hear the jeers as the ink dried on their deals.

Damon was roundly dismissed at Fenway after taking New York’s four-year, $52 million offer to patrol center field back in 2006. Ellsbury should expect much of the same in his return after signing a seven-year, $153 million pact this offseason.

But do you remember August of 2012? It’s painful for many fans – visions of the overmatched Bobby Valentine as blind pilot for a dispirited squad playing out the string. But that was also the month the Cleveland Indians released Johnny Damon.

Even though he’d managed a meager .222 with the Tribe, breathless sports radio callers lined up to enumerate the reasons why Damon was worth a shot back at Fenway. And if Damon had indeed walked across the outfield grass wearing home whites, he would have been met with cheers. After shaving the beard, spurning the region for top dollar and serving as a key cog in the Yankees’ 2009 World Series run, the wounds had healed. All was forgiven.

Deep down, you know Jacoby Ellsbury dreams of the same.

Damon’s membership card as an Idiot might as well be a trump card in the comparison. Never mind that Ellsbury won two Would Series titles in Boston. 2004 was the year that changed everything.

Damon’s jovial nature, flowing hair and beard made him a symbol of the Red Sox civil disobedience toward the Yankees and a folk hero for all ages. Ellsbury’s supporters were largely female. Damon also played through injuries (including a nasty clonk to the head from a collision with Damian Jackson in Game 5 of the 2003 ALDS that sent him to the hospital). Ellsbury gained a reputation for being injury-prone. Deserved or not, he did miss nearly two entire seasons in Boston, hitting the DL with a myriad of ailments. He was coincidentally shelved as the talk radio callers pushed for Damon’s return in 2012.

The characterization of Damon, Idiot, disguises the fact he was essentially a hired gun who bounced from Kansas City to Oakland before Dan Duquette lured him to Boston with a four-year deal. When the cash register beckoned in New York, he again moved along. He came to Boston with a clean shave and went out the door with a Gillette sponsorship.

Ellsbury started out a straight-laced kid from Oregon and largely remained so. Even when his teammates grew ridiculous beards during the 2013 World Series run, he kept his neatly manicured. A more apt comparison might be Nomar Garciaparra, like Ellsbury, a quiet phenom who came through the Red Sox system and finished his Boston tenure an odd fit on a team of boorish swingers.

When Damon comes back to Fenway 20 years from now, he’ll get the Luis Tiant treatment; Ellsbury will get the Wade Boggs golf clap.

Even as time goes by and wounds heal, Ellsbury won’t be a  Boston icon. He will be cheered, eventually, for his contributions to championship lineups. But even though Damon and Ellsbury did the same thing, eight years apart, no Boston team in history has ever generated more good will than the 2004 Boston Red Sox, a team whose spirit was symbolized in a noodle-armed center fielder who decided to stop shaving for a couple of years.