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December 5, 2013

Ellsbury is a businessman in the outfield

Jacoby Ellsbury’s jump from historic Fenway Park to Yankee Stadium will hit some Red Sox fans as an act of treachery. Players might say it’s about the rings and banners that are all but assured to those who play in the Bronx. But, in Ellsbury’s case, it’s about the Benjamins, a calculation that makes sense.

Ellsbury reportedly will get $153 million for seven years work for the Yankees. That obviously appealed to him in the short term - but there had to be long-term considerations, as well.

A friend who played professional basketball once explained to me the three stages of his athletic career: High school was about having fun. College ball was a job. The pros were all business.

What seemed like a harsh assessment at the time has proven true as I've seen players come and go. Fans see the glamour of a celebrated player’s life, but athletes in the spotlight - like Ellsbury - must know their fame is fleetingm even as obligations and expectations will surely persist.

For the Yankees, signing Ellsbury was undoubtedly a short-term move. They needed to get fans excited for the 2014 season, especially after missing the playoffs for only the second time since 1994. What better way than steal the darling of the Red Sox’s world championship team?

Ellsbury brings excitement to a team in need of good news. He’s a capable outfielder who batted .298 last year and produced a .355 on-base percentage. Hitting from the left side should help him clear the short right-field fence in Yankee Stadium more often than he did in Boston, where he had nine round-trippers in 2013.

If Ellsbury stays healthy, the Yankees should benefit from his speed. The fleet former American League all-star stole 52 bases last season.

The down side is that Ellsbury is susceptible to injuries. He played in 134 games for the Red Sox last summer. That makes the Yankees’ offer of a seven-year deal more than a stretch for someone who may have already seen his best days.

But the Yankees have always favored cashing in quickly over making long-term investments.

Not everyone is sold on this deal. Some baseball pundits are criticizing the Yankees for dumping money on a star past his peak - especially when the team has pressing holes to fill elsewhere on its roster. Those holes could include second base if Robinson Cano - who is also looking for a long-term, mega-contract - goes elsewhere.

Brett Gardner did an admirable job patrolling centerfield for New York last season. He’s expected to move to left or perhaps right to make room for Ellsbury.

In the meantime, the Yankees hope their payroll will get a break if a Major League Baseball mediator upholds the 211-game suspension on Alex Rodriquez. That will give them more room to fill the other gaps.

Back in Boston, Ellsbury’s loss takes the fizz out of any lingering World Series celebrations. The Red Sox now must set out to fill a spot in the outfield.

Jackie Bradley Jr. could be ready to step in, but Boston will need insurance just in case he’s not ready for everyday work.

In Boston, losing Ellsbury wasn’t totally unexpected. Losing him to the Yankees was.

It brings back memories of Johnny Damon's move from Boston to New York at the end of 2005 - a dreaded, heart-stopping moment. After Damon shaved his beard and headed for the Bronx, T-shirts appeared that read, "Looks like Jesus, Throws like Mary, Acts like Judas”. That’s unlikely to happen this time, though Ellsbury's move still stings.

Such loyalties aren't part of Ellsbury's personal calculations, of course, and that doesn't make him harsh.

When his contract is signed, Ellsbury won’t face any financial pressures as he watches the weeks pass until spring training. Even if the length of a playing career is never certain, his future should be. As a professional athlete, Ellsbury has learned a valuable economic lesson: Baseball is his business.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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