PAWTUCKET – There’s always been a soft spot in Tommy Harper’s heart for Jacoby Ellsbury. That’s why it pained Harper, a 15-year big league veteran, to see the Red Sox speedster get abused and mistreated – both from media members and teammates alike – the way he did in 2010.
“A lot of people turned on him,” noted Harper on a visit to McCoy Stadium Wednesday night. “Sometimes in team meetings, you would give an opinion, but it stays right there. But if a media person says it, it’s all over because it’s out in the public.”
In Harper’s eyes, Kevin Youkilis crossed the line when he publicly questioned Ellsbury’s commitment after last summer’s turn of events, which saw Ellsbury spend five weeks in Arizona, rehabbing his cracked ribs.
“I didn’t like that. When a teammate tells me he’s hurt, he’s hurt. I don’t look for reasons to say that he’s soft. I just think he’s hurt,” said Harper. “I believe if he was able to play, he would have played. I go about my business, not judging whether they’re soft.
“What Jacoby dealt with was people wondering why he went to Arizona instead of staying with the club. If the people in charge are okay with it, it’s okay with me. Some players don’t understand that they aren’t running the team,” Harper continued. “To pile on that kid the way people did wasn’t right in my opinion. I never had cracked ribs, so how can I judge the pain threshold of someone else? It’s impossible.”
Those same critics who buried Ellsbury are now singing hosannas about the job he’s done in solidifying the leadoff spot for Boston. The centerfielder has hit safely in 19 straight games, a streak he carried into Wednesday’s game against the Blue Jays.
“That’s part of being an athlete. Not only do you have to learn how to perform on the field, but have to learn how to let things roll to the side,” said Harper, a minor-league consultant for the Red Sox. “In your career, the only people who are going to be in your corner are your wife and children. The fans? I don’t mind the fans because that’s what they are – fans. They like to see the players perform on the day they come to the game. They are allowed to flip flop and we expect that. I don’t expect that from my teammates and the people who should know better. I expect those people to be in my corner.”
Like when the Red Sox piled on Carl Crawford after the struggling outfielder recorded two game-winning hits on the most recent homestand.
“That makes you feel good, to have people in your corner,” said Harper. “If Crawford felt so elated that his teammates came rushing on the field, how should Ellsbury feel when they went the opposite on him? People have feelings. So Crawford felt it in a positive way while Ellsbury felt it in a negative way.
“When I played for the Red Sox [from 1972-74], I used to kid around and say that no matter what we did on the field, the fans would always blame Carl [Yastrzemski],” shared Harper. “Yaz took a lot of pressure off a lot of people. Usually it’s the high priced player who catches the most hell. When he goes bad, it’s really magnified.”
As much as last year was a lost cause for Ellsbury, he should take great pride that he was able to restore the luster to his career in a relatively short amount of time.
“He should feel good right now,” said Harper, mentioning he last touched base with Ellsbury during spring training. “I may have played 14 years, but if I had been more consistent, then I would have been a better player. How long can Ellsbury do this? Can he do it for two months? Can he do it for a year? Can he do it for 10? That’s what we don’t know yet.
“From what I’m seeing on TV, Ellsbury is hitting the ball in all zones. A year ago he was so concerned with the ball inside that he would ground out to second base a lot,” Harper added. “Now he’s taking some pitches that are away from him and he’s hitting those pitches to left field. I saw him hit a ball off the Green Monster the other night and that’s the first time I can recall him doing that.”