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First Navajo in Major League Baseball Has Ties to New Mexico

By Toby Smith
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    FARMINGTON— The young man took the old woman's hand and squeezed gently. It was fall 2004, and the woman was dying. At 85, she had led a full life, rearing 13 children, embracing many grandchildren.
    This grandchild at her bedside had promise, the woman always sensed. He loved baseball, and family members said he did not play the game like a Native.

Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox.

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Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Jacoby Ellsbury tries to avoid a tag by Minnesota Twins first baseman Garrett Jones during a game at Fenway Park in September.

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Chris Carlson/Associated Press

Boston Red Sox left fielder Jacoby Ellsbury safely slides past catcher Mike Napoli during the eighth inning in Game 3 of an American League Division Series playoff baseball game in Anaheim, Calif.

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Richard Pipes / Journal

In Farmington, relatives and friends gather to cheer Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox during a televised playoff game.

    The woman did not understand exactly what that meant, but she knew she was proud.
    "I must leave now, Masanii," the young man said, using the word for grandmother. He had to return to college, in Oregon, where he lived, far from this small house in Fruitland, N.M., on the reservation.
    Leaving his grandmother was hard, but a part of him would always be with her, he believed. This was the Navajo way.
Getting the facts right
    Jacoby Ellsbury, the young man, this year became the first Navajo to play Major League Baseball. He is playing for the Boston Red Sox, who are battling the Cleveland Indians to reach the World Series.
    Ellsbury is not a star, not yet. In fact, he doesn't have his own baseball card. He is primarily a substitute, even though in his few weeks with Boston this season he saw duty in 33 games and batted .353, with three home runs.
    He plays the game effortlessly, scouts say, a slender outfielder with jack-rabbit speed and a potent left arm.
    If you listen to the Red Sox Nation, a fanatical body found in pockets across the country, including, just recently, the Navajo Nation, Jacoby Ellsbury should not be a sub. He should be in the starting lineup.
    After two-plus seasons in the minor leagues, Ellsbury joined the Red Sox for good early last month. Few members of the Navajo Nation knew of him until the playoffs began, early this month.
    Born in rural Oregon, Ellsbury grew up there. But he spent portions of his youth in Arizona and New Mexico, living with his grandmother and visiting his many clan relatives, mostly during summers.
    He returned to the Southwest periodically because his mother, a full-blooded Navajo who belongs to the Colorado River tribes, in Parker, Ariz., told her son: "You must never forget who you are."
    Praised by baseball broadcaster Peter Gammons, Ellsbury has been featured on ESPN and CNN, and in The New York Times and the Boston Globe.
    Great things have been trumpeted, as well as erroneous things. Ellsbury has been placed, variously, in the Zuni, Hopi and Jemez tribes. Someone wrote that his mother weaves rugs for a living, that his father is a silversmith.
    Such misstatements have made his mother, Margie McCabe Ellsbury, who works as an early childhood interventionist in Madras, Ore., laugh.
Chasing after a dream
    Since word of Ellsbury's achievement surfaced, Red Sox ball caps have been spotted throughout the Four Corners, down in Gallup, and as far west as Kayenta, Ariz.
    "Honestly, I'd never thought I'd live to see a Navajo make it to the major leagues," Dineh Benally, a youth baseball coach from Shiprock, says.
    "It's so hard for anyone from any place at all to make the majors," Benally says. "And baseball isn't a popular Navajo sport. Basketball and rodeo, they're very big for us. What Jacoby has done is almost incomprehensible."
    Benally and some others in New Mexico knew Ellsbury from years back. Benally tried to get Ellsbury into the Connie Mack League, Farmington's celebrated baseball program, and says he worked to interest the University of New Mexico in recruiting him.
    None of that happened, Benally says, because Ellsbury had other ideas.
    "Jacoby was on a mission. He had a dream, and he got it."
Rooting for home team
    On this recent night, a dozen Navajos, Ellsbury kin and family friends, most of whom wear Red Sox trappings, crowd a long table in Cracker's, Farmington's only sports bar.
    On one wall a big-screen TV reveals that Boston is routing Cleveland in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. Though cheers ring out for the Red Sox, anxiety fills the restaurant.
    "When is Jacoby going in?" a nephew wonders.
    In the eighth inning, a smooth-faced Boston backup, chewing gum and wearing No. 46, enters to pinch run.
    Cracker's goes crackers.
    Ellsbury advances to second base, but soon the inning ends.
    In the ninth, the camera fixes on left field, where Ellsbury has replaced the slugger Manny Ramirez.
    Standing alone, with Fenway Park's fabled Green Monster wall behind him, a wide-eyed Ellsbury is 3-feet-tall on the screen.
    Screams engulf Cracker's.
    When Ellsbury pounds a fist into his glove, an act that ballplayers at every level do all game long, Cracker's responds as if someone had won the lottery.
Spending time on farm
    Sudden fame has not caused Ellsbury, 24, to say much, at least about his roots.
    "He has always been humble and reserved," says his uncle, Art Allison Jr., who runs a security firm in Farmington. "Jacoby would never go, 'I'm the first this or that.' ''
    Ellsbury's parents, Jim and Margie Ellsbury, taught their four sons to embody modesty. Jim Ellsbury, an Anglo, is a forester, not a silversmith. The couple, now separated, met in Oregon, where then-Margie McCabe had gone to join a sister on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, in 1980.
    Before that, the McCabe side of Ellsbury's family resided in Parker, with other Navajos. The McCabes had left Ganado, Ariz., in the Four Corners, in 1949. Several family members later returned to the Four Corners region.
    Ellsbury's grandfather, Franklin McCabe Sr., farmed cotton and alfalfa in Parker. His wife, Alice Curley McCabe, Ellsbury's masanii, herded sheep.
    "Jacoby learned to shear sheep," his aunt, Emily McCabe Allison, says. "His grandmother was amazed that he did this with his left hand. She had never seen anybody do that."
    The little boy also learned to love his grandmother's specialty: fry bread so soft and airy it tasted heaven-sent.
    The little boy, now 6-1 and 185 pounds, knows "some little words" of Navajo, according to his mother. "He can say 'Come to eat' or 'Go to bed,' because I said them."
Tracking gift for sports
    Athletes occupy several branches of the McCabe/Allison family trees. Ellsbury's three younger brothers have been multisport standouts in Oregon.
    As a ballplayer, Ellsbury's speed is considered to be his greatest asset. During the regular season, he stole nine bases.
    "You can't teach speed," says his friend, Benally. "It's God-given."
    Or perhaps, family-given. Franklin J. McCabe Sr., who died in 1973, ran track as a schoolboy at Fort Wingate. Ellsbury's great-great grandfather was so admired for his swiftness that Navajos called him "Antelope Feet."
    Though some Navajos have shined in baseball— Joe Kurley, an Ellsbury cousin, pitched Farmington High to a state championship in 1995— on the reservation the sport suffers.
    "There's no grass there, no water," Allison says. "The fields they have are all-dirt."
    There's also little coaching available on the reservation, especially for young Navajos.
    "When we get them as teenagers," says John Gutierrez, baseball coach at Navajo Prep, "some don't know how to throw or know the rules. We have to start from scratch."
    Elmer Yazzie Jr., who runs the Shiprock Amateur Baseball League, is working to change things. Having a role model like Ellsbury has already helped, he says.
    "But we've still got a long way to go."
Returning to his roots
    Ellsbury signed with the Red Sox in 2005, out of Oregon State, the 23rd player selected in the draft that year.
    Boston gave him a $1.4 million bonus. Single and unattached, he used some of that money to pay off his parents' mortgage and to buy his mother a new house. No Hummer for this kid.
    "It wouldn't be the way he is," Art Allison says.
    This is the way he is: A month or so after he made that bedside visit to his masanii, Ellsbury went back to serve as a pallbearer at her funeral, in Parker.
    On a brisk November day, Ellsbury, to honor her, wore a traditional turquoise and coral necklace. It was time to say goodbye. And to never forget.