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Jacoby Ellsbury: deal or no deal

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The Yankees' big mistake was in signing Ellsbury to such a rich deal in the first place. They should have known that if the Red Sox, who have never been shy about signing expensive free agents, were willing to let him walk it must have been for good reason.

Dick
Flavin

Jacoby Ellsbury was never a great fan favorite in these parts, even during his best days with the Red Sox. He never really connected with the fan base. During his one truly great season in Boston in 2011 (.321 batting average, 32 home runs, 105 runs batted in, 50 stolen bases, plus silver slugger and gold glove awards) there still seemed to be an emotional detachment between him and Red Sox fans. So, when he opted for free agency after the 2013 season and the Red Sox made no effort to resign him, leaving the Evil Empire of Gotham City to give him the big bucks, seven years at $153 million, there was not much of an uproar back here.

When he'd come back to Boston dressed in pinstripes he'd be greeted with boos, but not nearly with the gusto of those that awaited one of his predecessors, Johnny Damon. The difference was that we had been in love with Damon, but only in like with Ellsbury.

But the news that the Yankees are trying to back out of paying him the money due on his contract finally has all of Red Sox Nation solidly in Jacoby's corner. "Pay the poor guy his money," we clamor -- when, of course, we all well know that the one thing Ellsbury isn't is a "poor guy." He makes as much in a week as the president of the United States gets paid in a whole year, and that's no exaggeration.

Still, it's the Yankees who are on the hook, and anything that causes them aggravation, to say nothing of dough, is fine with us. It's not that we hate them, we don't -- I don't, anyhow. In fact, I have grudging respect for them (emphasis on "grudging").

By way of background, last week the Yankees released Ellsbury, who hasn't played a single inning for the past two seasons. He has one year left on his contract, plus a buy out of $5 million for 2021, or a total of $26 million. I'm just using round numbers here, a few hundred thousand bucks more or less is a mere pittance -- isn't it? But here is what sticks in New York's craw: the contract is not insured for 2020, which means that the ball club would have to pay the whole amount due, rather than some insurance company, which would then pass the cost on to its other policy holders. Now, New York has announced that it has no intention of paying the money that's owed because Ellsbury was treated by a doctor the club had not approved. But the doctor in question has since come forward and said that he did treat Ellsbury, but not for an injury he received while playing, and that the Yankees knew he was treating Jacoby, anyway. Complicating matters, the Major League Baseball Players' Association has come out with guns blazing on the side of Ellsbury, fearing the precedent that would be set by a team refusing to pay the amount due on a player's contract.

Major League Baseball does not like the thought of upsetting the all-powerful players' union, so the Yankees have a steep hill to climb if they're going to win this tug-of-war. It's an unholy mess for all concerned.

The Yankees' big mistake was in signing Ellsbury to such a rich deal in the first place. They should have known that if the Red Sox, who have never been shy about signing expensive free agents, were willing to let him walk it must have been for good reason.

Jacoby Ellsbury was always injury-prone, even as a young player. In April of 2010, he was in a collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre. It didn't look too serious at the time, but Ellsbury suffered a couple of cracked ribs. It was hoped that he'd be back in action in a few weeks but he ended up being sidelined for the entire year. It seemed that he missed as many games while here as he played, though when he did play he was really good. In 2009, he set a new Red Sox record for stolen bases with 70. Through it all, though, there was something almost robotic about him. He showed up everyday, played, and then went on his way. There was none of the emotional feel that Nomar Garciaparra had engendered before him or that Mookie Betts does now. But Jacoby, if he was healthy (and that's a big if) was a player on, or close to, their level. Unfortunately for him and the team that employed him, he was often injured, which did not bode well for the future, a sign that the Yankees willfully ignored.

Of course, New York is hardly the only ballclub to have gambled and lost on such an expensive long-term contract. The Red Sox are finally out from under paying Pablo Sandoval more than $17 million a year to play for the San Francisco Giants. That's to say nothing of the two years left on Dustin Pedroia's deal. Anyone remember Rusney Castillo? You can be sure that the Red Sox accounting department hasn't forgotten.

The fact is that the number of those type deals that work out is few and far between. The signing of Manny Ramirez to an eight-year contract in 2000 for $20 million a year actually worked out very well for the Red Sox for seven and a half years, or until Manny decided to force his way out of town by claiming to have a bad knee; one small detail, though, was he had trouble remembering which knee it was that bothered him. No sooner had he been traded to the Dodgers when the knee (which ever one it was) was miraculously cured. So even that deal ended on a sour note for the Red Sox.

Contracts such as the one Jacoby Ellsbury signed with the Yankees in 2014 are an insanely bad bet for the teams involved. Yet they continue bid against each other for the privilege of placing their bets. Now the Yankees are saying that Ellsbury voided his contract by visiting an unauthorized doctor, which he denies. Which is it, deal or no deal?

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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