There always is a big-time wrestling feel when someone from the Boston Red Sox moves along to the New York Yankees. The hand of Vince McMahon seems to be involved. Hulk Hogan is now a bad guy? How can this be? What will all those little Hulksters think? The change from hero to heel -- or vice-versa, depending on fan affiliation -- stretches the boundaries of drama to their limits.
Jacoby Ellsbury is now a Yankee?
What will all those little Hulksters think?
From the time George Herman Ruth was shipped down the Boston Post Road for the requisite 13 pieces of silver and a player to be named later, until this week, when Mr. Ellsbury decided to accept $153 million for the next seven years of work in the expansive centerfield of Yankee Stadium, the Boston-to-New York switch has been the most unsettling career movement in American sport. Think the novel, "1984," with the ever-changing wall posters. Think black replacing white. Think of upside-down.
Is John Boehner now a Democrat?
Is Stephen King afraid of the dark?
Jacoby Ellsbury is now a Yankee.
He follows the lead of Luis Tiant and Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens and Johnny Damon in joining what in Boston is called "the Evil Empire." (Roger did soften the change by playing two seasons in Toronto before moving along to New York.) The common thread in all of these free-agent signings was the Yankees, always flush with Big Apple dollars, were able and willing to spend the money to outbid the team in the smaller city.
In the most notable case, Damon's departure after the 2004 World Series victory sparked great outrage in the smaller city. Damon was seen as the scruffy catalyst of that scruffy Red Sox bunch, matinee-idol handsome, personable and cool. He was the favorite face of the franchise. The sight of that face, now clean-shaven, hair trimmed underneath a blue-and-white baseball cap, was unsettling.
"There's no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they're going to come after me hard," Damon had told reporters during the previous season. "It's definitely not the most important thing for me to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. That's not what I need."
Now he was in New York? For that top dollar? The Yankees had given him four years for $52 million. The Red Sox had not matched either number. The local feeling was that he should have … the Red Sox should have … somebody should have … this was not right. He was booed every time he came to Boston, even when he moved along to Detroit, Tampa Bay and Cleveland to end his career.
The departure of Boggs in 1993, on the other hand, was far less dramatic. Coming off his worst Red Sox season in 1992 (a .265 batting average) with a bad back, 35 years old, looking for years and dollars, the five-time batting champion was seen as expendable. His eccentricities, his me-first quirks, had grown stale in the marketplace. There were few tears when he left for New York. The Yankees could have him for the three years on his nice new contract with that $3 million bonus in the front. No big loss.
Or was it?
"I just got a hunch that maybe he is the best buy we've had in a long time," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said. "I think he'll hit .300 next year. I'm not prepared to believe that Wade Boggs isn't Wade Boggs."
Boggs not only hit .302 for the next season, but averaged .313 for FIVE Yankees seasons. He, like Damon, also won a World Series in New York in 1996. He rode the policeman's horse around the diamond in celebration as if he were Jesse James in search of the Wild Bunch. He kissed the World Series trophy as if it were a Playboy Playmate. The readings on the Despicability Meter did rise with all of that in Boston at last.
Ellsbury's departure fits somewhere in the middle between Boggs and Damon. Like Damon, he is a more than competent centerfielder, romanced directly off a character-driven, long-haired world championship team. Unlike Damon, he was not the favored face. That belonged to David Ortiz, no argument. Ellsbury was in the second line of stars, high on a long list. Little kids loved him because of his size. Purists loved him because of his speed, his ability to steal a base and track down fly balls. Girls loved him because of his good looks. He was good, good, good, but not break-the-bank good.
There was a curious, season-long disconnect to close out his time in Boston. Despite all the good things he did during the championship run, there always was the sense he was going to leave. He was in the last year of his contract. His agent was Scott Boras, the same no-prisoners negotiator Johnny Damon used. The centerfielder would want the big years and the big money and the Red Sox would not outbid the other bidders. He was good, but not break-the-bank good. Everybody understood.
Unlike Boggs, Ellsbury's departure would not be without sadness. He would have looked good in a Red Sox uniform for his entire career. Unlike Damon, though, his departure would not be a surprise. He never had promised anything. Everyone knew he was going for the top dollar.
The surprise -- ah -- would be the destination.
Jacoby Ellsbury is now a Yankee?
"What do I tell my little girl?" a man asked on the newsfeed on my Facebook page yesterday. "She has Jacoby's picture taped to her alarm clock."
Minds had to be adjusted. Clocks, too.
A number of locals pointed out Ellsbury's injury history, a succession of problems though his seven years in Boston. They sounded like they were salesmen for that service that reveals accident histories in used cars. Would you pay $153 million for seven years for a vehicle that had been bothered by all of this? A number of other locals pointed out that a fleet centerfielder was probably not the most urgent of the troubled Yankees needs. (Hah! Come back when you find some starting pitching.) A final group mostly just smiled at the prospects for next summer.
"In ways you don't know, you're going to enjoy watching Ellsbury play for the Yankees," Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley said for this group. "And you're going to enjoy booing him…"
Tickets will be available in all price ranges.
The little Hulksters will be just fine.