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Ellsbury a rare talent

In him, Sox Nation meets Navajo Nation

With speed among his many tools, the game of Jacoby Ellsbury (above) bears a striking resemblance to that of Johnny Damon. With speed among his many tools, the game of Jacoby Ellsbury (above) bears a striking resemblance to that of Johnny Damon. (VICTOR BALDIZON/GETTY IMAGES)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When her son Jacoby calls home, as he did the other day seeking advice on what bedding to buy, Margie Ellsbury said the conversation usually begins like this.

"Ya-ah-teh, Tsui."

"Ya-ah-teh, Shi-yazh."

Jacoby is greeting his mother in her native Navajo tongue, with "Tsui" having morphed from its literal meaning "grandchild" -- which is how Margie's mother, Alice, used it with Margie's kids -- to a family word of affection, like "sweetie."

Margie responds in kind with, "Hello, my son."

"Jacoby knows some Navajo songs I taught my boys," she said. "He'd probably sing one for you, if you asked."

Jacoby Ellsbury is the prized position prospect in the Red Sox organization, a center fielder whose speed, defense, quick bat, and overall athleticism mark him as perhaps the most exciting player the Sox have had in their system since Nomar Garciaparra broke in as a rookie 10 years ago.

Drafted in the first round, 23d overall, just two years ago out of Oregon State, where he was named Pac-10 Co-Player of the Year, Ellsbury has validated scouting director Jason McLeod's evaluation. He hit a combined .303 with 7 home runs and 51 RBIs in 111 games split between Single A Wilmington and Double A Portland, where he helped the Sea Dogs win the Eastern League championship. Baseball America rates him the best hitter for average, fastest base runner, best athlete, and best defensive outfielder in the Sox system.

"The things he is working on now are the things that will define whether he will be a major leaguer or a very good major leaguer," said Sox vice president of player personnel Ben Cherington.

"The frosting on the cake, he's still working on. The batter is already in the mixing bowl."

Ellsbury was invited to his first major league camp this spring, and although he was among the team's first cuts Friday and is expected to begin the season back in Portland, no one questions that the big leagues are within reach. The college kid who once dressed up as Johnny Damon for Halloween doesn't need a costume to remind folks of the player to which he bears a striking resemblance skill-wise.

But one's an All-Star, the other a work in progress.

"From a development standpoint, there are things I can do better," Ellsbury said, "but I think I'm knocking on the door right now."

Navajo roots
Should Ellsbury pass through that door, he will be one of the few Native Americans -- and the first of Navajo descent -- to play in the big leagues. Bobby Madritsch, who spun eight shutout innings against the Red Sox three years ago, is a member of the Lakota Sioux and wore numerous tattoos illustrating his tribal heritage. But Madritsch blew out his shoulder and is no longer in the majors.

A number of players in recent years have had traces of Native American blood -- Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, for example, is one-eighth Choctaw -- but you have to go back over a half-century to identify the last prominent Native American ballplayer, former Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds, who belonged to the Muscogee tribe.

Jacoby Ellsbury's aunt, Esther McCabe, one of Margie Ellsbury's 14 brothers and sisters, says the family can trace its roots back to Ganado Mucho, a prominent Navajo headman of the 19th century who was a cattleman and peacemaker. He once was forced into hiding by Kit Carson, the famous frontiersman, before negotiating a peace treaty. His name, "Ganado," is associated with a particular style of weaving blankets.

Margie Ellsbury says she'll take her sister's word for it on the family connection to the chief. Their mother was a rug weaver, living in Parker, Ariz., on the Colorado River Indians Tribe reservation. Four tribes -- the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi, and Navajo -- live on the 300,000 acres of the reservation, which straddles both sides of the Colorado River, part in Arizona, part in California. Jacoby Ellsbury is officially registered as a member of the Colorado River Indians Tribe.

Almost 30 years ago, Margie Ellsbury, while still in school, won a contest to design the tribal flag. The brown represents the earth. Blue is for water, and the river that gives life to the earth. The orange rays depict the eternal rising and setting of the sun on the earth and water. There are four feathers, one for each tribe.

"My mother had sheep," Margie Ellsbury said. "She sheared them, she carded them, she spun the wool, she dyed the wool, she made Navajo rugs."

Her father, Franklin McCabe (the surname was arbitrarily assigned to him to replace his Indian name), had been a silversmith when the family lived on another Navajo reservation, but got a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a surveyor, Esther said. He had only an eighth-grade education, she said. Her mother's schooling ended in the second grade, but when her husband died, she learned to drive and learned some English.

Margie Ellsbury went away to a Mormon school in Utah when she was 8, returning home for summers. She later married Jim Ellsbury, a non-Native American who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a forester.

Desire to excel
Jacoby Ellsbury did not spend most of his young life living on a reservation. He was born in Madras, Ore., a small town on the east side of Mount Hood. It's near a large reservation, the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, where his mother works as an early intervention/special education specialist among non-Navajo Native Americans.

But for one year, when his grandmother was ill, he went with his mother and three brothers to the reservation in Arizona to be with her. He was 12, and caught the attention of Packy Sevada, who along with his brother Bruiser coached Little League.

"He had the raw fundamentals to hit a baseball and run like no other in the 18 years I coached Little League," Sevada wrote in an e-mail. "When I'd speak to the team or to Jacoby, he'd be the one to look you in the eye. He had the desire to learn and excel."

John Reynolds was a guidance counselor at Madras High School. He'd also done a good deal of coaching, including three future NFLers. The first time he saw Ellsbury was on a football field. "He closed so fast on the guy he was covering," Reynolds said, "I thought to myself, 'Who is this guy?'

"Then I saw him play baseball, and I called Pat Casey at Oregon State, and told him about this kid who was a tremendous athlete and just so fast."

Hurdling obstacles
USA Today recently cited a survey that indicated only three-10ths of 1 percent of all college athletes in Division 1, 2, or 3 were Native Americans in 2004-05, Ellsbury's last year at Oregon State. Only 30 were playing baseball at that level.

A high school dropout rate higher than 40 percent and a poverty rate approaching 25 percent are among the reasons cited for the tiny representation. Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, the Sioux who won the 10,000 meters in 1964, told the newspaper it went beyond that.

"We're the freest country in the world, and we [Native Americans] live under quasi-apartheid," he said. "Indirectly, we're locked outside and that's where all the issues come from."

Jacoby Ellsbury went to a high school, Reynolds said, that was divided almost evenly among Native Americans, Hispanics, and Caucasian kids, and he moved easily among the groups.

Reynolds had moved to Corvallis by the time Ellsbury began playing at Oregon State. Margie and the other boys frequently stayed with the Reynoldses when they made the three-hour drive to Corvallis to see Jacoby play. "The players at Oregon State used to say, 'C'mon, Native,' " Reynolds said, "but he was always proud of his heritage."

Since turning pro, Ellsbury says, what tends to happen is that teammates look at his dark features and assume he's Spanish. "I've had Dominican players say something to me in Spanish," he said. "That's when I explain.

"But the guys are cool about it. Joking around, they'll call me 'Chief,' stuff like that, but it's all fun and games. I don't take offense to it.

"The fans? It's never been an issue. They see I work hard, I hustle wherever I go, I think that's what they see."

Charles Albert Bender, who was part Chippewa, pitched 16 years in the big leagues, and was a mainstay of Connie Mack's championship Philadelphia Athletics teams, pitching in five World Series between 1905 and 1914. He's in the Hall of Fame.

History remembers him as "Chief." When he gave autographs, he signed his name as Charley. He and other Native Americans who played baseball in the early decades of the game were subject to ridicule and derision, phony war whoops, and insulting nicknames.

"I was cool on the outside," Bender is quoted as saying in the book, "Money Pitcher: Chief Bender and the Tragedy of Indian Assimilation" by historian William Kashatus. "On the inside I burned up."

If someone wants to call her nephew "Chief," Esther McCabe said, that's fine by her. "It would be appropriate," she said, "considering he's descended from a chief."

Sevada, the former Little League coach, is Navajo, too. His pride in Jacoby Ellsbury is palpable.

"Jacoby already is a great role model for our Native American youth," he said. "Even though some Native Americans don't have the skill to play baseball, they can be just as successful in business or whatever they choose.

"I'd hope the kids on our reservation, Colorado River Indian Tribes, or others, see that any Native American can be successful -- no matter what they decide to do -- with hard work."