Ellsbury's speed puts him on fast track

Ellsbury's speed puts him on fast track

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Before Major League scouts took a look at speedster Jacoby Ellsbury chasing down fly balls and stealing bases, they should have seen what he was doing in his backyard.

"When I was younger, me and my brothers were just messing around, and there was a deer in our backyard," said Ellsbury, who grew up in Madras, Ore. "We were just joking about wanting to catch it. They kind of went in back of it, chased it toward me, and it kind of got close to me. I took off, roped the deer, and that's the true story."

Then swift enough to catch a deer, Ellsbury is now so fleet of foot that he's on the fast track in the Minor League system of the Boston Red Sox.

Ellsbury, who was selected by the Red Sox with the 23rd overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, vaulted to Double-A Portland for the final 50 games of last season, and hit .308.

The organization thinks so highly of him that they brought him to Major League camp this spring as a non-roster invitee. Of Ellsbury's many attributes, the ones that stand above all others are those legs.

Manager Terry Francona, who has had countless surgeries on his legs, including a recent knee replacement, is envious.

"It looks like it's fun for him to run," said Francona.

This isn't to say that the 23-year-old Ellsbury will just blow right by everyone with an express pass to Fenway Park. The center fielder and leadoff man is still learning, something that became evident when he was nearly picked off in Boston's Feb. 28 Grapefruit League debut against the Twins. As it turns out, the first baseman dropped the ball, and Ellsbury used his blazing speed to steal second on the play.

But, as Francona noted, Ellsbury won't always be able to run his way out of trouble.

"Yeah, he's quick," the manager said. "And it also caught my eye that he's still learning. It's good. That's why we let guys run [in Spring Training]. He was guessing at a period in the game where we don't want somebody guessing. He probably should have been out. That's not what we're looking for. But it's good, that's the way you learn. Wherever he's played before, that's how they did it. They didn't have a David Ortiz or a Manny Ramirez [hitting behind Ellsbury] at Oregon State."

Ellsbury is anything but a cocky prospect. He's a polite and diligent young man, using his first Major League camp as more of an educational seminar than a showcase of his skills.

"It's been a great experience," said Ellsbury. "I think the biggest thing is just kind of seeing how the veterans go about their business. Learning from them, kind of picking their brains, I've learned a lot just from the short two weeks I've been here."

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A left-handed hitter and thrower, Ellsbury stands at 6-foot-1 and weighs 185 pounds. Combine his physique with his skill set, black hair, tanned skin and boyish face, and it's impossible not to think of a young Johnny Damon.

Before Damon became the caveman and self-proclaimed "idiot" who helped the 2004 Red Sox win the World Series, he was moving his way up the Royals farm system with the type of youthful ambition that Ellsbury has now.

"It's definitely big shoes to fill if you're being compared to Johnny Damon," said Ellsbury. "But I look at it as me being my own player. I really try not to compare my game to his. But he's a great ballplayer, he won a championship here, so he's going to be beloved by Boston media, by the fans, and rightfully so. I'm just going to go out there and be my own person, play my own style, and that's about it."

One thing Damon has that Ellsbury hopes to develop is power, something rare in a speedy leadoff hitter.

"Hopefully, I can hit 10 to 15 [home runs] just by squaring the ball up and getting a good trajectory," said Ellsbury, who hit seven homers in 442 at-bats last year. "That's something they say is the last thing to come with young players -- the power numbers. I'm not too worried about it. I'm just focused on squaring up the ball and hitting line drives right now. Even this year I feel like the power is starting to develop. I wouldn't say I have it right now, but it's starting to develop."

Until that development is complete, he will keep bunting. Over the last year, the Red Sox have drilled into Ellsbury the importance of the bunt. He practiced the art over and over during his recent stint in the Arizona Fall League.

"It's something I really haven't done in the past, but speed is obviously one of my tools," he said. "Being the leadoff hitter, bunting is just something that comes with that, being able to put the ball down on any count."

Ellsbury has been spending equal time on the drag bunt and the push bunt. Already a gifted fielder, he is trying to improve his arm strength. He's also trying to make his at-bats count more.

"Even if you hit a line drive and get an out, that's a good at-bat," he said. "Coming away with a quality plate appearance, whether it's a walk or a hit-by-pitch or a hard-hit ball is what I'm trying to do. I want to get my positive plate appearances up."

Is it more enjoyable for Ellsbury to make a game-saving catch against the wall or steal a big base?

"I guess, at the time, whatever the team needs the most," he said. "If me running down the ball saves a run and gives us a shot to win the game, I'd probably say running down a ball. If we're down by a run and the team needs me to steal a base, I'd say stealing a base."

And catching deer?

"They're pretty fast, they're touch to catch," he said. "If you spook it, they're going to be out right away. You know how tough it is to get it hunting, let alone get it close enough to rope it?"

Those childhood memories are all well and good, but now Ellsbury spends his time trying to rope a baseball out of the reach of defenders.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.