Does Jacoby deserve the rank of 'hero'?

By Sunnie Clahchischiligi
Navajo Times

FRUITLAND, N.M., Oct. 31, 2013

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Every summer since 2007, dugouts across or near the Navajo Nation have been packed with young baseball players talking about how they wish they could be like Jacoby Ellsbury.

Some wanted the Red Sox outfielder's speed. Others wanted his heart-breaking smile. But most simply wanted to be him -- the Navajo kid who grew up in Oregon and finally got his chance to play big-boy baseball.

They wanted to be the half-Navajo kid who at 24 years old was called up from Boston's minor league team, the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, to the MLB roster when Boston clinched their spot in the 2007 World Series (and eventually won the title).

Who could blame them? Not me, or anyone else really.

Ellsbury, now 30, still plays for the Red Sox as the team's leadoff hitter and center fielder. The soon-to-be free agent has played a key role for Boston as they inch their way through the 2013 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. As of deadline the Red Sox lead the series, 3-2.

The last time the Red Sox played in the World Series, Ellsbury was just a kid getting a taste of major league baseball.

He was new to big-city baseball and to many Navajos. But as time lapsed his story became the talk of media outlets everywhere.

News of his Navajo roots reached Navajo people everywhere, and he became the people's Navajo baseball hero.

Years later, the Ellsbury fans remain loyal as ever, but over time critics of the baseball stud began to surface, and many of them remain even now during the World Series.

In an effort for us to give our readers more of what they enjoy reading I decided to dedicate my evenings to watching every game of the this year's World Series. I, along with our social media manager, decided to use social media sites to create somewhat of a "Jacoby Ellsbury Update Party" where I would tweet anything and everything that happened or was said of Ellsbury during the World Series.

As a writer who values old-school journalism, I've been hesitant to jump on the social media wagon but something told me this was going to be good.

I was right.

In the last week, I've personally seen, heard and read about what our readers think about Ellsbury six years after his debut.

It turns out there is much debate over the man whom many Native Americans identify with, especially since Ellsbury was dubbed a "baseball hero" in a previous notebook.

A Native American follower on Twitter suggested that "it's easy to throw around the hero tag ... 'baseball hero' he's a professional. Just like a lot of Natives," and that "Heroes perform an extraordinary feat e.g. fighters, police officers, armed forces members."

So I wondered: What makes one a hero? Who gets to decide if Jacoby Ellsbury is one? And how?

In my previous notebook I dubbed him a hero because of the many Native athletes I've encountered in my time as a sports writer. I gave him the title not because I myself felt like calling him a hero, but because many of young Navajo children do.

It doesn't matter what I think; they are the ones who look up to him and aspire to do great things and be good citizens because of what he's done and whom he represents.

According to them, he is a hero. He might not fight crime, jail the bad guys or save the country, but to them, the term "hero" is not limited to the definition found in a dictionary.

Hernandez Miguel, 10-year-old Naataanii U-12 Navajo baseball player, undoubtedly believes that Ellsbury is a hero.

"A hero is someone that inspires you about something that you want to do and you want to be that person," Miguel said. "A lot of people are inspired and they want to be like Jacoby Ellsbury, so they can play in the World Series too ... and I want to be like him."

If that's not enough, Quanah Chapman, Navajo/Zuni/Sioux, also a member of the Naataanii U-12 team.

The 10-year-old self-proclaimed Jacoby Ellsbury superfan said he's watched every single game of the World Series, just to get a glimpse of his baseball hero.

"I'm watching him right now. I want to know what it feels like to play in the World Series," Chapman said. "He's an inspiration."

I'm sure some of you might be wondering why it's important to know what a couple of 10-year-olds think. As I understand it, to the Navajo people it's of great importance.

In Navajo philosophy children are held in high regard because they are the future.

What they think about someone like Ellsbury matters, because it gives them hope and inspiration. It gives them a drive to do better than they might not have if someone like Ellsbury hadn't have come around.

No one knows that better than former University of Arizona pitcher and 2012 World Series champ Vincent Littleman.

Littleman, 22, said he sees both sides of the argument, but more of how Ellsbury could be seen as a hero to young children who aspire to play big-league baseball like he once did.

"I guess it really depends on your definition of what a hero is ... Jacoby Ellsbury can be labeled a hero, but not in the sense of being a firefighter or police officer, maybe motivating the youth," Littleman said.

He said that some young Navajo children might find themselves in a troubled lifestyle that they're trying to find a way out of. Ellsbury could be dubbed a hero, he said, if he is their motivation to play baseball and obtain a better life.

"If they see him on the stage that he's playing right now it can motivate them on the inside. It propels them away from the trouble," he said. "Definitely drives you every day because you just see where he is and you hope one day you're in the same shoes he is in."

So, for now, Native children on, off or near the Navajo Nation will continue to shuffle into the concrete dugouts talking about how they wish they could be the next Navajo baseball hero.

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