Great news for purveyors of poster board in Boston. Jacoby Ellsbury is headed back to Fenway Park. In a Yankees uniform. Tonight.
You can already envision the artists at work.
To Hell with Ells!
Burning questions to the 37,400 who will cram Fenway over the next three nights are: Do you want a full pound of flesh? Or will a few quarts of blood do?
When Ellsbury jogs onto the Yawkey Way lawn as an enemy for the first time, one man, and one man only, will come closest to knowing exactly how Ellsbury feels in the moment.
The man who, like Ellsbury, moved from center field in Boston to center stage in New York as a free agent. The man who was booed for a full 30 seconds before his first at-bat in Fenway Park with the Yankees in 2006. The man who endured boos, taunting, boos, curses, boos, obscene gestures, more boos and homemade signs that evening calling him “Benedict Damon” and “Judas Demon.”
Why, the artistic flair shown by some fans.
“It was definitely tough because I put my heart and soul on the field for them,” Johnny Damon told Bleacher Report the other day. “And just to see how much the fans really hate Yankee players.”
Truthfully, a guy does not exactly need to pack up his Fenway Park locker, sign with the Yanks for a gob of Benjamins and then come gallivanting back into Kenmore Square in pinstripes just to learn what Boston fans really think of Yankees players, does he?
You and I pretty much know the end game there.
But for those hardcore Hardball Scientists who insist on testing that theory, here’s one hint in advance for Mr. Ellsbury: The entire thing leaves a deep and lasting scar.
“The toughest thing for me was the whole experience,” Damon said. “That’s why I try not to even think about it anymore. You find out how vicious people are, and how a jersey can change people’s thoughts on you and on people and on society.”
Hall of Famer Wade Boggs surely would second that. Though some of the chill has melted since he fled Fenway for the Bronx in 1993, won a World Series with the Yanks in ’96 and has plenty of pictures of him riding a police horse in Yankee Stadium to prove it, Boggs remains angry to this day that the Sox still have not retired his No. 26.
Instead, Chris Snopek, Wes Chamberlain, Lou Merloni and Scott Podsednik are among those who have worn the number since he left. Chris Snopek? Ouch.
“He will get booed,” Boggs told Bleacher Report, chuckling. “Needless to say, I got booed when I went back. The Boston faithful do not like Yankees who have gone from Boston to New York.”
As for Damon, he was a core member of the beloved Idiots of 2004 who sent Boston into orbit by winning its first World Series title in 86 years. It was Damon, in fact, who coined the “Idiots” nickname in the first place.
But following the 2005 season, his fourth with the Red Sox, he signed a free-agent deal with the Yankees that paid him $12 million more than Boston had offered.
Next thing Damon knew—and heads up right here, Mr. Ellsbury—he was trotting out to a Fenway Park center field that's warning track was littered in dollar bills, both real and fake.
He still avoids discussing specifics.
“It felt like I was the most hated person on the planet,” said Damon, aftershocks from that May 1, 2006, evening still rumbling through his brain eight years later. “But I understood, and I dealt with it.
“And I’m just glad I got another World Series ring in 2009 (with the Yankees). Made it all worthwhile.”
Ellsbury, of course, helped Boston win a World Series just last October.
So unlike Damon, who at least had a year’s buffer zone in Boston before bailing, Ellsbury was a Yankee before he ever had a chance to slip the Red Sox World Series ring onto his finger.
Meaning, what we’ve got heading into the latest epic Yankees-Red Sox Series is this:
- A Red Sox team that now has spoiled no-longer-suffering Boston with three World Series titles in the past 10 years.
- A Red Sox/Ellsbury relationship severed so recently that the open-wound split remains raw.
So now what Red Sox and Yankees denizens—and the Entertainment Tonight portion of baseball’s fandom—are dying to know is, has all of this recent success softened Bostonians up enough that the reaction to Ellsbury will be only really, really ugly?
Or will it be remarkably and exquisitely hateful?
“I’m sure it’s going to be tough on Ellsbury,” Damon said. “It was a little easier on me because Boston was my third team, and I understood the business side of the game.
“I believe he’s having a good year so far, which helps.”
Damon’s scouting is accurate: In 19 games as the Yankees’ center fielder, Ellsbury is hitting .338/.395/.441 with six RBI and eight steals, tied for second in the American League with Houston’s Jose Altuve.
Ellsbury, who signed a seven-year, $153 million contract with the Yanks over the winter, did get his World Series ring two weeks ago. Boston general manager Ben Cherington and manger John Farrell personally gave it to him when the Sox visited the Bronx for the first time this season.
“It’s better to have the entire stadium yelling at you, or most of them,” Damon said. “Because they spoke words and they kind of bounced off a little bit more.
“When one person is going directly at you, that’s when it gets rough. When everyone is yelling at you, you realize it’s the jersey and not you the individual.”
Damon was scarred by the boos, in no small part because, as he says, he “put my heart and soul” onto that field for the Red Sox for four years. But he also gets not only that it is a business, but that “it’s a business which Boston helped create for me.”
Despite his World Series hero status from ’04, Damon—who is spending this month in New York raising money for charitable foundations—has not made any public appearances in Boston since defecting to the Yankees.
Still, he says he plans to be around Boston quite a bit this summer to visit with one of his best friends, Orlando neighbor and Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, and with his longtime buddy, David Ortiz.
His advice to Ellsbury?
“You know, just keep playing good,” Damon said. “Or keep playing hard. Because fans respect that more than someone who just puts up numbers and doesn’t care about games 100 percent of the time. Hard work and hustle can help you win some very important games.”
Maybe one more thing, too: Don’t expect to get your side of the story out.
“The Red Sox own the newspapers, they own the radio station, they own NESN (New England Sports Network),” Damon said. “They were filling up the airwaves. I wasn’t surprised.
“God forbid somebody called in and said something good about me. I just don’t think it made the airwaves that night—or for the next four years.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball here.