- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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Know this about Jacoby Ellsbury: This fight is not of his choosing.
There is nothing in Ellsbury's upbringing, personality or track record that remotely suggests that the 26-year-old Red Sox outfielder relishes challenging the authority of the near-billion-dollar enterprise that employs him.
The player who rarely raises his voice in the clubhouse or on the field is hardly the type eager to engage the Red Sox in a dispute that sets him publicly against one of the most powerful arms of any professional sports franchise, its medical staff.
And they clearly are at odds, Ellsbury laying out details to reporters in Toronto on Saturday that left little question he believed the team was wrong in its diagnosis, mistaken in its diagnostic procedures, and misleading if not untruthful in its description of his condition. This was no heat-of-the-moment decision, either. Ellsbury came prepared, reading from pages of notes that left no doubt about his intention to show how strongly his analysis differs from that of the team's.
Ellsbury said Saturday that the team initially told him he had bruised ribs, leading him to believe he would return to the lineup quickly. He said that was the reason he was willing to take painkillers in an effort to get back on the field. It was only when he couldn't play and a decision needed to be made about placing him on the disabled list that he asked for an MRI exam.
"I was told exactly, 'We aren't going to MRI a bruise,"' Ellsbury said. "Those were the exact words: 'We aren't going to MRI a bruise.' OK, that's all right. I'm going to tough it out and keep going."
It was only when the pain persisted and he called his agent, Scott Boras, that an MRI was taken, Ellsbury said, and it showed the four fractures in the front area of his ribs. The pain he was still experiencing in his back, he said, was explained as "part of the normal healing process."
It turned out to be anything but. Ellsbury said that contrary to what he believed at the time, the Red Sox never took an MRI from a back view that would have shown he had a fifth broken rib in the posterior area. Dr. Lewis Yocum, the doctor to whom Ellsbury went for a second opinion, took an MRI and immediately detected the presence of an additional broken rib.
The Red Sox said it was likely that Ellsbury sustained the additional broken rib when he dived for a ball in Philadelphia nearly six weeks after the original injury, and said Yocum concurred with their findings. Not true, Ellsbury said. The rib was broken in his original collision with Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre on April 11 in Kansas City. Yocum indicated to him it was broken at that time, Ellsbury said, contrary to the Red Sox's statement. The Sox just never took the pictures that would have confirmed that, he said.
There is more.
"As a result of me playing with the broken ribs -- through all the rehab starts, I had the broken rib, and all the games I played in the big leagues, I had the broken rib -- the MRI also showed I'd strained my lat [the latissimus dorsi muscle, the broadest muscle in the back]."
Ellsbury said he injured the muscle because he was compensating for the discomfort of playing with the undiagnosed broken rib. He said he also had inflamed nerves surrounding the rib.
"That was a new finding," Ellsbury said. "The doctors that I saw previously, I'd gotten the different opinions and the back was never MRI'd. To my understanding, it had been. Now we need to make a decision with the Red Sox where I'm going to rehab this. The Red Sox agreed, they were in favor, they were happy that I was going to go to API [Athletes Performance Institute in Phoenix] and rehab my lat, my nerve and my rib."
These are serious charges. For Ellsbury, there are untold ramifications, including the possibility that the team may ultimately decide to wash its hands of the player. It is also a battle that thrusts an unwanted spotlight on Red Sox medical director Dr. Thomas Gill, who was hand-picked by majority owner John W. Henry and faces the uncomfortable possibility that other problems with players could come to light.
And while it is true that Ellsbury is represented by the game's most powerful agent, Boras, you must know this about Ellsbury, too: He is his own man, one who is doing this not blindly at his agent's bidding, but to clear his own good name and reputation.
Say what you will about Boras, a convenient straw man whenever there is controversy, but the reality is that if the agent had not advocated on Ellsbury's behalf, who knows when the injuries would have been detected.
Already, wounds have been inflicted on Ellsbury that go well beyond the pain incurred when he collided with Beltre. He has had to listen to accusations that he is soft and unwilling to play hurt, an opinion that not only has been expressed in the media but also in whispers in the Sox organization. He also just this week was called out by a teammate, Kevin Youkilis, who expressed regret that Ellsbury has not been with the club for the last five weeks and pointedly mentioned other teammates who are injured and have been here.
There is evidence to suggest that the Red Sox knew Ellsbury would not be returning quietly. Last month, after Yocum found the additional fractured rib, the Sox issued a statement from Gill, which was followed up two days later with a conference call with the team's medical director. In an e-mail response to questions raised by ESPN Boston, Gill also said that Ellsbury's back had been scanned (but he did not specifically mention an MRI) and did not show a posterior injury after the original collision, and that he ruled out the possibility that it could have happened at that time, and Yocum concurred.
"To whatever accuracy today's technology with an MRI or CT scan can show, you've had multiple specialists, some from the agent, some from the team, all with the same goal to get Jacoby better," Gill said of not finding a fracture in the back area of the ribs initially."
Ellsbury is hardly blazing a new trail in taking on the Red Sox medical establishment. In the spring of 2008, Curt Schilling bitterly contested the Red Sox recommendation that he not have surgery on his right shoulder. Jason Bay was allowed to leave as a free agent this past winter after the medical staff raised questions about the health of his knees and shoulder, allegations that Bay vigorously contested by seeking a second and third opinion.
There also were numerous battles with one of Gill's predecessors, Dr. Arthur Pappas, who also owned a stake in the team and was famously called out by Nomar Garciaparra when closer Tom Gordon blew out his elbow as a result, Garciaparra believed, of the team's faulty diagnosis. "Our doctors are killing us," Garciaparra said.
But Ellsbury is a player still in the early stages of his career, in only his third full season with the club. It takes courage for a player in his situation to speak out, even if he is backed by the Boras machine. And it is a measure of the injustice that he believes has been perpetrated that he is willing, as he tries to come back as the team's everyday center fielder, also to become the center of controversy.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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