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Ellsbury a good bet to become Sox fans’ public enemy No. 1

The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

February 23. 2014 9:57PM
Yankees outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury stretches during morning practice at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday. (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

TAMPA, Fla. — Jacoby Ellsbury has no illusions about what’s waiting for him on April 22, the first time he’ll set foot at Fenway as a Yankee. Forget about the disclaimers that work in Ellsbury’s favor — seven years of service with the Red Sox, two World Series rings and a perfect record of good behavior. He is nevertheless to New England what Fredo was to Michael Corleone after being planted with the big wet one.

“You’re dead to me” was Al Pacino’s chilling send-off to his older brother in “The Godfather”, which more or less captures Boston’s sentiment toward its former center fielder. Ellsbury was lured away by the Yankees’ millions and now he’s been sucked into the timeless war between two northeast-corridor rivals.

On Friday, Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino said comparisons to the Yankees’ spending habits make him “cringe” and tweaked the Steinbrenner family for “relying heavily on their inimitable old-fashioned Yankees style of high-priced, long-term free agents.”

Lucchino was talking about Ellsbury, of course, along with Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka. It didn’t take long for Yankees president Randy Levine to return fire in the tabloids, saying, “I feel bad for Larry; he constantly sees ghosts and is spooked by the Yankees. But I can understand why, because under his and Bobby Valentine’s plan two years ago, the Red Sox were in last place.”

Granted, this exchange falls a couple of rungs below the blood-feud days of the early 2000s, when the hostility was so thick Pedro Martinez practically body-slammed Don Zimmer to the ground in the middle of a brawl. Still, it’s clear there’ll never be lasting peace in the AL East, which steers the conversational road right back to Ellsbury.

Fair or not, he’ll wear the crown as New England’s Most Hated Yankee, if only by default. Everyone else gets a waiver, including Derek Jeter, who’ll be granted Mariano Rivera farewell status not just in Boston, but wherever he goes.

There’s no chance — zero — that Jeter will be booed this summer, not with conviction, anyway. Red Sox fans have successfully demonized the shortstop over the years, but there was a marked shift between the two cities last summer.

Remember when the Yankees played “Sweet Caroline” at the Stadium last April in the days after the marathon bombing? It was a gesture of solidarity that did not go unnoticed in Boston. Later, as the season began to wind down, Boston’s fans were enormously respectful of Rivera, giving him a standing ovation in his final appearances at Fenway.

It’s just a hunch, but the good will is likely to flow back toward Jeter this season, as well. And once you take the captain out of the equation, there aren’t many black hats. The disgraced Alex Rodriguez is gone, of course, and so is the chance to mock his PED addiction. Same goes for Robinson Cano, who always bugged Yankee haters for his nonchalance and seeming arrogance.

Now it’s down to Mark Teixeira, who has a hard time stirring the juices of Yankee fans, let alone riling up Sox loyalists. Carlos Beltran? We’ll see, but he’s a nice guy on the back end of a Hall of Fame career. Same goes for Brian McCann, who’ll arrive at Yawkey Way as just another faceless out-of-towner. CC Sabathia? Whoever manages to dislike the big man will be the first.

The sure bet, of course, is Ellsbury, who said it was all business, nothing personal when he signed a seven-year, $153 million contract over the winter. The Sox’s hierarchy had nothing but kind words for Ellsbury as he walked out the door, but they made it clear they didn’t think he was worth the investment.

The fact that Ellsbury — a Scott Boras client — signed so early in the off-season told you it was, indeed, a huge overpay. But, as the Sox said, good for Ellsbury and anyone who can make themselves that wealthy. Whether Sox fans can be that dispassionate, remains to be seen. It would be one thing if Ellsbury had signed with, say, the Mariners or Rangers, but shaving his beard and slipping on a pinstripes jersey like it was an Armani suit, only months after winning a world championship with the Red Sox, will be a debt he’ll never repay.

No one knows better than Johnny Damon, who left Beantown for the Bronx in 2006. He recommends Ellsbury prepare for the worst because, as he told in December: “Boston fans are notoriously hateful to Yankee players.”

Damon made sure to point out that Ellsbury deserves better, having hustled and run into walls and done everything possible to honorably represent the Sox. Still, facts are facts: you join the Evil Empire, you become a walking advertisement for baseball’s 1 percent, even if the Red Sox, not the Yankees are considered royalty in the industry.

Lucky for Ellsbury he’s been blessed with a what-me-worry personality. If the new Yankee is troubled by the idea of standing in the visitors’ on-deck circle at Fenway — where the fans are so close they can practically breathe on you — he’s certainly not showing it.

“All I can tell you is that I gave everything I had in Boston when I was there, and I hope the fans remember that,” Ellsbury said. “I had seven good years there, we won two world championships. Other than that ... I don’t know. I’m trying not to think about it.”

Ellsbury has little to worry about for the next six weeks, but the countdown starts soon after opening day. By then, he better be ready for Boston and the big wet one that’s coming, Michael Corleone-style.

Red Sox/MLB