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Ellsbury taking a run at left field

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 5, 2010 09:10 AM

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Jacoby Ellsbury joins a line of fabled left fielders for the Red Sox that includes JIm Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, and Ted Williams. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jacoby Ellsbury isn't just quick. He is a quick study, at least when it comes to the historical significance of his new home. The erstwhile center fielder knows that his move to left field this season means he is inheriting some of the most fabled real estate in Red Sox history and North American pro sports.

Long before Dedham boasted a destination called Legacy Place, the Red Sox had one in left. The team has been more left-leaning than the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice all served as the primary left fielder for the Sox at some point between 1939* and 1986, the last year Rice was a regular in left. All ended up in the Hall of Fame. The Sox also had the mercurial Manny Ramirez, a future Hall of Famer, as the man manning left for most of the previous decade.

"Obviously, there have been some very good players over the years to roam left field," said Ellsbury, prior to last night's Grapefruit League clash with the Minnesota Twins. "Pretty unbelievable company out there."

Yes it is, but few, if any, of Ellsbury's forerunners were the type of runners who can steal home plate, score from second on a wild pitch or routinely turn routine ground balls into base hits. Ellsbury as the everyday left fielder is symbolic of the outside-the-box 2010 Boston Red Sox and the move should be beneficial for both player and team.

It's easy to slip into hyperbole and say the Sox have never had a left fielder like Ellsbury. That is not quite true. It's just been a while, almost as long as the Bruins' Stanley Cup drought (doesn't look like that's coming to an end anytime soon, huh?).

In 1973, the Sox had another fleet-footed player standing in front of the Wall. Tommy Harper played 140 games, including 138 starts, in left that season and set a team stolen base record with an American League-leading 54, a record Ellsbury broke last season when he swiped an MLB-best 70.  

But Harper and Ellsbury are definitely the exceptions.

Left field has traditionally been ruled by sluggers, not speedsters, for the Sox. Williams, Yaz and Rice were all power guys, so was Manny. Last year's left fielder Jason Bay (remember him?) hit 36 home runs and drove in 119 runs. Even Troy O'Leary had back-to-back 20-homer seasons playing left for the Sox. Mike Greenwell, Rice's successor, wasn't really a power hitter -- he only had one 20-homer season -- but he certainly wasn't a stolen base threat either. Greenwell had 80 career stolen bases, or 10 more than Ellsbury last season.
In his first two full major league seasons, Ellsbury has yet to crack double digits in deep balls. As far as left fielders go, Ellsbury is clearly closer to Carl Crawford than Carl Yastrzemski, and he's okay with that.

"You got to be the player that you are. You can't try to be something different," he said. "Nothing changes. I'm basically just the left fielder, not the center fielder. I think everything, your approach, has to stay the same, what's given you success in the past. I think eventually, not even to say it's going to be this year, but I feel eventually I'll hit for more power someday. But it's something I'm not trying to do. It will just happen on its own."

Moving to left field could actually make Ellsbury more of a weapon on the base paths, since it will save him some legwork in the outfield. Ellsbury might be something of an anomaly as a Red Sox left fielder, but there have been other swift leadoff men in left in baseball history.

Stolen base royalty Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman, Lou Brock, all spent significant portions of their careers as left fielders.

"The Red Sox are not traditionally known for stealing bases, and just that aspect alone brings a little bit different look than what they're accustomed to," said Ellsbury. "But I just plan to go out there and not worry about what has been done in the past and just go out there in the present and compete and play hard and leave it all on the field."

Ellsbury referenced a contemporary dynamic offensive player whose game is predicated on speed and plays a corner outfield spot.

"I just look at it like, and I'm not trying to compare myself to this player, but Ichiro for example, corner guy at what is typically a power position, the same sort of thing -- runs, steal bases, leadoff hitter, gets on base," said Ellsbury. "He is obviously a right fielder, but that's kind of the same mentality. Do whatever you can to get on base, set the tone for the team and it shouldn't change the plan on the field."

It's not as if left field is foreign territory for Ellsbury. He played in 22 games in left field in 2007, making 15 starts. In 2008, Ellsbury started 36 games in left and played there in 58 games.

Plus, playing left has its perks, as Ramirez proved. You can always duck into the Monster for a quick convo, grab a bit of popcorn, check email, or take a bathroom break.

"Yeah, maybe a little quick bite to eat or maybe store some fluid in there or something," said Ellsbury with a smile. "No, you never know what can happen, but I don't foresee myself doing anything like that."

Like the dinged and dented Wall he'll stand in front of this season, Ellsbury hopes to leave his own mark in left field.

*(As astute reader "Clff" pointed out and baseballreference.com confirmed, Williams didn't actually play left field in his first big league season. He played right field before moving to left in 1940. Joe Vosmik played 144 games in left in 1939 and two other players saw time there.)

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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