Much is known about New York Yankees centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. The top-notch base runner used to catch dragonflies to rub on his feet, believing it would give him increased speed. The N7 ambassador’s love for baseball started on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. The Oregon State University product grew up in the Mormon church.
When you enter the limelight like he has – American League MVP runner-up back in 2011 for the Boston Red Sox – people naturally take interest.
But there are still many stones in the story of this Colorado River Indian left untold. For example, where does he stand on the Redskins debate? Others relate more to his personality and lifestyle. Did you know the two-time MLB stolen bases leader saw himself in Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez from The Sandlot? Or that he went on vacation with one of his childhood idols, 2016 Pro Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey, Jr.? Or that every now and then he fits a Navajo taco into his rigorous diet as a professional baseball player?
ITCMN caught up with Ellsbury during the Yankees’ three-game road trip to Seattle, where the soon-to-be 33-year-old tackled every question we had for him.
How does it feel to be as close as you can be to home in pro baseball?
I always enjoy coming back here. My friends, family always make the trip out here. My first game was at the Kingdome [in Seattle]. Ken Griffey, Jr. hit one into the upper deck. We were in the nosebleeds and it almost reached us. I was a Seattle Mariners fan.
Do you participate in any traditional events?
That’s something my brothers and I are talking about. We need to get a drum together and get it going [laughing]. Music’s very important to Native American people. Growing up, we’d go to the pow wows in Warm Springs and I enjoyed that.
You’re one of just a few Native Americans in the big leagues. Have you talked to some of the others, like Joba Chamberlain or Kyle Lohse?
You have that fraternity in pro baseball. I think it’s even closer with Joba and Kyle.
What’s your opinion on American Indian imagery in pro sports?
I’m on the fence. I hear both sides. I know it’s a touchy subject for a lot of people but I think it’s important for Native Americans to recognize their heritage.
What’s your favorite baseball movie?
The one I watched the most as a kid that kind of reminded me of myself was The Sandlot. I could watch that right now. Kids having fun; playing the backyard; enjoying baseball; I could relate to that movie.
How often do you see your family?
We were just in Anaheim playing the Angels and I saw my mom and two of my brothers out there. Coming [to the west coast] I’ll see my whole family. Family is very important. I try to share some of the excitement with them. They’re a big reason I’m here today.
Did you collect baseball cards as a kid?
I was a big collector. Mainly baseball, but also basketball and football. My dad, he got me into baseball and card collecting. He has a Topps set with Mickey Mantle. I just remember seeing it and being interested.
Was it cool seeing yourself on a baseball card?
Yes it was. I have quite a few of them. For a while there I pretty much collected every card that came out. I haven’t been into it as much lately.
We have a lot of strong women in Indian country. How important was your mom’s influence in your life?
She was the cornerstone of our family and kept everybody together. She was strong. I still talk to her all the time today, asking her questions.
What’s your favorite indigenous food?
That’s an easy one: It’s my mom’s Navajo tacos. Pretty much every time I go home that’s the first meal I request and she’s willing to make it.
How do you tell people about where you come from?
When I first came out in the minor leagues, a lot of people thought I spoke Spanish. But I explained to them what it’s like growing up on the reservation.
Although you stand 6-foot-1, you jumped center in high school basketball. You just robbed Albert Pujols of a historic home run. Where do your hops come from?
I’ve always worked on it. I remember in high school doing jump rope, doing various things to increase my vertical. A lot of it’s god-given. Once you stop working on it you’ll decline.
What are your goals?
Win another championship. Come each day and play hard; give everything you have on the field. I hope to continue to do that for the rest of my career.
Who’s the toughest pitcher you’ve ever faced?
Chris Sale of the [Chicago] White Sox. Lefty. Throws hard; throws a slider. He gives me some trouble.
What’s the dominating genre on your iPod?
I listen to everything. Rap. R&B. Country. Jazz. I like it all. I have some pow wow CDs. Every once and awhile my brothers and I will break it out.
You got one or two words in the Navajo language on you?
Yáát’ééh: hello. Yéego: it means let’s go, hustle!
What’s it like to have Indian country supporting your career?
I appreciate the support I get at various stadiums. I can usually spot ‘em; they usually have signs. It’s very special that they come out to the game and support me. Especially when they bring their kids.
Cary Rosenbaum (Colville) is a correspondent and columnist for Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @caryrosenbaum