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Central issue concerns his desire to play

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  May 28, 2010 08:20 AM

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Two months into the regular season, Jacoby Ellsbury has played in nine games. Ellsbury says he is hurting. The Red Sox seem to wonder. And there is an indisputable disconnect between the team and its flashy center fielder.

Just wondering: Has Jacoby now become to the Sox what "Medical" Bill Cartwright once was to the New York Knicks? Is it Ellsbury – or DLsbury?

In case you missed it – and many did – here’s what Ellsbury told Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com following Wednesday’s game against Tampa Bay, yet another affair in which Ellsbury was absent from the lineup.

"I think they downplay it because they misdiagnosed it,'' Ellsbury said of the rib injury that has kept him out for the large majority of this season. "They said you treat it all the same way. Remember that comment? How do you treat a bruise the same as a break?"

According to the Globe’s Nick Cafardo this morning, sources in the Red Sox organization contend that Ellsbury now regrets making that remark. Regardless, Ellsbury has not disputed actually making them, offering an unfiltered glimpse into his soul and into the wedge currently driven between him and the team.

Before we go any further, we all need to understand something here. This is not solely about this season and about whether Ellsbury has bruised ribs or hairline fractures. This goes well beyond that. During his rookie season of 2008, Ellsbury missed small chunks of time with various assorted ailments. He came to the Red Sox having earned a reputation in the minor leagues of being someone who required a great deal of, well, maintenance. Last year, during a rock-solid season in which Ellsbury batted .301, stole 70 bases, and played in 153 games, manager Terry Francona spoke of how Ellsbury was beginning to understand the "responsibility" of playing in the major leagues, which was a nice way of saying that Ellsbury had an obligation to his manager and teammates to play through minor issues and be in the lineup.

Then came last offseason, the departure of Jason Bay, and the acquisition of Mike Cameron. Ellsbury was bumped from center field to left, a change that clearly did not sit well with him. In Kansas City April 11, Ellsbury collided with third baseman Adrian Beltre and suffered his existing rib injury, and you could hear all the pink hats in Camp Jacoby groan simultaneously.

Well, if they didn’t move him to left field in the first place, he wouldn’t be hurt.

Blah, blah, blah.

Adding further intrigue to this story is the presence of agent Scott Boras, whom Ellsbury hired to represent him during the 2007-08 offseason, which just so happens to have come after Ellsbury’s terrific performance in the World Series. Like officials from many teams, some in Sox management believe that Boras discourages his players from taking the field at something less than 100 percent because it would affect their performance on the field and, therefore, leverage in negotiations. (There’s no $ in team.) Following this season, for the first time, Ellsbury will be eligible for salary arbitration. Boras almost always brings his players to free agency at the first possible opportunity – for Ellsbury, that would be after the 2013 season – and last year the Red Sox drafted Ellsbury clone Reymond Fuentes with their first-round pick in the draft.

All of that said, let’s remember that Boras works for Ellsbury and not the other way around. Jason Varitek has Boras as an agent, too, and Varitek rushed back from knee surgery in 2006 in hopes of keeping afloat a Red Sox ship that had taken on too much water.

At the moment, nobody should dispute that Ellsbury is in some level of discomfort. The greater question concerns if and when he can play through it. Ellsbury already has said that he expects to deal with the problem all year – an alibi if he plays poorly, no doubt – and it is worth noting that he is 1 for 14 since coming off the disabled list. Nonetheless, Ellsbury probably could help the Red Sox with his defense alone, especially since the Sox played horrific defense in left and center field while he and Mike Cameron were sidelined.

Cameron, incidentally, is 37 years old and may require surgery after this season to repair what has been diagnosed as a tear of lower abdominal or groin muscle. From 1998-2007, minus a 2005 season in which he played just 76 games, Cameron averaged 148 games a year. His injury in 2005 resulted from a brutal outfield collision (think Damian Jackson and Johnny Damon in the 2003 playoffs – but worse) that literally smashed in Cameron’s face and required him to undergo reconstructive surgery.

Upon Cameron’s return from the disabled list earlier this week, the Sox announced that he would be moved to left field because of his injury. But at least he’s back. With Ellsbury again sidelined, Cameron has the responsibilities in center because he is the team’s best option there. (Bill Hall played center last night.)

Ellsbury, of course, is merely 26. While it is always dangerous to wonder whether players are capable of playing through injuries – the Red Sox would be wise to remember the cases of both Scott Williamson and Matt Clement – the issue here is clearly much bigger. In the minds of the Sox – and others – Ellsbury has a reputation, something only he can be responsible for. Earlier this month, Mike Lowell openly wondered whether he still had a role on the Red Sox, but at least Lowell’s remarks were motivated by the desire to play, something that hardly makes him different from the majority of athletes.

In Ellsbury’s case, the problem seems to be the opposite.

Does he want to play or doesn’t he?

Update, 5:20 p.m.: As many of you know, the Red Sox put Ellsbury back on the 15-day disabled list before tonight’s game. While manager Terry Francona expressed hope that Ellsbury could return relatively soon, the player is not eligible to return until June 9 at the earliest. However, today's move doesn't erase the fact that a disconnect existed between the team and player over how to proceed.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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