Full speed ahead
After a lost year, Ellsbury says he’s 100 percent ready to dive into 2011
FORT MYERS, Fla. — It’s not every day you resort to asking a baseball player about Jay Cutler.
Yesterday was the day. Jacoby Ellsbury came into camp (a day early, thank you very much), and fielded dozens of questions about his healed ribs, his offseason workouts, his stolen base goals, and a lot of other swell stuff.
The elephant in the room, of course, was last year’s frosty standoff between Ellsbury and the team. Things got off to a bad start when — on the heels of a season in which he hit .301 with 70 steals and two errors — the Sox moved him to left field to make room for 37-year-old Mike Cameron in center.
Ellsbury broke a few ribs in an early-season collision with Adrian Beltre and things were never right thereafter. He said he had to beg the team to get an MRI. He tried to come back, but he reinjured the ribs. He was questioned by teammates when he retreated to Arizona for rehab.
It was a complete disaster. He wound up playing 18 games and batting .192. There was a lot of noise about Ellsbury’s slow recovery, his willingness to play, and his future with the Sox.
“I’ll put it in the past,’’ Ellsbury kept saying when asked about 2010. “I’m moving forward.’’
Did he think the criticism was unfair?
“You know, I’m moving on,’’ he said after a pause. “This is 2011.’’
OK, how about this? Did you watch the NFL playoffs?
“I did,’’ he said.
Bears quarterback Cutler took a lot of heat from people (much of it from tweeting NFL players) who thought he should have been playing instead of standing on the sideline with a knee injury. Did Ellsbury have any thoughts about how Cutler was treated?
“Yeah, I did,’’ said Ellsbury, chuckling. “No real comment on that, either. I sound like a broken recorder.’’
Too bad. What we wanted was to hear Ellsbury lash out at those who doubted him. He could have used Cutler as a model. The Bears quarterback turned out to have a torn ligament after hearing about how he wasn’t tough enough. And the New York Post’s intrepid Kevin Kernan points out that Ellsbury’s 18 games would be just about right for a football player.
There was no lashing out from Ellsbury. In Mark McGwire-speak, he was not here to talk about the past. The mantra was, “It feels good to put 2010 behind me and look forward to 2011. I’ve already put that behind me. You can’t really change last year.’’
This seems to be the theme of Fort Myers 2011. Not since 1987 can I remember a Red Sox team so determined to delete the prior season. Perhaps you remember: The 1986 Red Sox advanced to the seventh game of the World Series and came within one strike of winning the series in Game 6. Four months later, when they gathered in Winter Haven, haunted manager John McNamara held a meeting and told his guys to forget about last year. It was an extraordinary notion for a team that went so far.
This year we have Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and now Ellsbury — a parade of talented ballplayers who’d rather stick needles in their eyes than talk about last year.
Ellsbury stonewalls better than most. Maybe it comes from being a Scott Boras client. Or maybe the kid is just a natural. In any event, he won’t give it up. He wouldn’t even pinpoint when his ribs were finally 100 percent.
“I worked hard all offseason to get to where I’m at right now and I feel really good,’’ he said. “I was cleared quite a while ago. I’m not even sure of the exact date, but it’s been a while now. I’ve been hitting and throwing.’’
General manager Theo Epstein said the Sox never considered trading Ellsbury, but acknowledged that things got dicey last season.
“I do feel like we had his back as an organization,’’ said Epstein. “And I feel like his heart was in the right place the whole time. If you throw in some extenuating circumstances and some other variables and, yeah, it can get awkward at times, but I think we go through it and maybe it will make the relationship that much stronger.
“I never thought his career would be interrupted like it was for a year, but all it was was a blip. We’ve got him penciled in as an important young player entering his prime for us.’’
Any regrets about moving him out of center last year?
“It was always going to be a temporary move,’’ said the GM. “I know he ran into the third baseman, so it looks bad, but I don’t think that was the reason he got injured. I think everything about last year looks bad because he didn’t play.
“No real regrets about the decision because I think it was made for the right reason, but I wish it had turned out differently and I’m actually glad he’s in center this year.’’
“I’ll play anywhere,’’ said Ellsbury. “Everybody knows that. Center is my natural position.’’
Where does he want to hit in the order?
“That’s up to Tito [Terry Francona]. I just want to help the team, wherever I fall in that order.’’
What about hitting in a lineup with Carl Crawford?
“Back-to-back or separated, any way in the lineup definitely makes it tough on opposing pitchers.’’
“I wouldn’t bet against myself.’’
Is he worried about being tentative coming off the injury?
“I’m not worried at all. It’s not like I’m coming off major surgery. If anything, they [the ribs] should be stronger. That first time sliding, first time diving, there’ll be no hesitation.
“It’s exciting. Reading the papers and seeing all the excitement in Boston is exciting for us as players. We like our team right now.’’
All of them like their team right now. And none of them are here to talk about the past.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.