When Jacoby Ellsbury was a senior at Madras High School in Oregon, he had already lettered in five sports. Baseball, of course, was one of them, and that talent has led Ellsbury to a lucrative professional career.
But long before he became a two-time World Series champion with the Red Sox and a soon-to-be $153-million free agent acquisition with the Yankees, Ellsbury was a high school kid with something to prove.
It seems Ellsbury could never beat Madras baseball coach Bruce Reece at badminton. The two played “85 to 100 times,” according to Reece, before Ellsbury finally bested his coach.
“That was the second biggest smile I’ve ever seen him have, when he beat me in badminton,” Reece said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “His perseverance is unbelievable. Absolutely. His determination. I heard Mariano Rivera talking about that on the radio today. How Jacoby doesn’t give in. He just continues to battle and battle. He’s a fierce competitor.”
The biggest smile? Reece, now athletic director at Oregon City High School, said that came when Ellsbury won the World Series with the Red Sox in 2007, after which he was honored with a parade and assembly at the high school gym in his tiny hometown (pop. 6,046, according to the 2010 Census).
“The gym was packed,” Reece said. “It’s just one of those great feelings that you have when you have a small community like that.”
Ellsbury, 30, is part Navajo Indian and lived on a reservation until his parents moved to Madras when he was in kindergarten. He was raised as a Mormon.
After high school, Ellsbury was selected by Tampa Bay in the 23rd round of the 2002 draft, but elected to go to Oregon State instead. Boston drafted him 23rd overall in 2005; he was in the majors by 2007 and spent seven seasons with the Red Sox before agreeing to switch sides in baseball’s bitterest rivalry with a seven-year deal with the Yankees.
Ellsbury hit .438 as a rookie in the 2007 World Series. He was in centerfield again this past October when the Red Sox beat the Cardinals in six games. He hit .250 in the 2013 World Series after batting .400 with six stolen bases in the first two rounds. In his career, Ellsbury is a .301 hitter in the postseason with an OPS of .774.
Pat Casey, Ellsbury’s coach at Oregon State, said Wednesday: “I think he’s at his best when it means the most. Those are the guys that are hard to find.”
In high school, Reece first found Ellsbury on the football field and basketball court. Encouraged to try out for baseball, the lefthanded thrower wasn’t initially sold on using his speed in centerfield.
“He wanted to be a catcher,” Reece said. “I told him that we don’t have lefthanded catchers. He wanted to be in the mix all the time. I think that’s probably the most important part about him — he’s so into wanting to have control of his destiny.”
Now destiny and a fistful of dollars are taking Ellsbury to the Bronx. That could create a problem for the host of people in the Pacific Northwest who became Red Sox fans because of Ellsbury’s exploits. Or will it?
“I can probably shift teams,” Reece said. “I think I can probably wear a New York hat now.”