Jacoby Ellsbury's commitment to Navajo youth will be felt by generations to come
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
The sun rises hot and high over the long desert road, our cruise control set to a brisk 90 mph. We're two hours west of Phoenix, two hours north of Mexico, and about an hour east of our destination, but we might as well be a few days from anywhere. Cars blow past at an easy 100, leaving our Hyundai SUV rumbling in the aftermath.
This Southwestern state is no stranger to baseball. Every February, it welcomes 15 Major League teams for Spring Training, plus there's Arizona Fall League action, Minor League games and the Diamondbacks' home slate. For certain people, a baseball trip to Arizona is part of something larger, maybe a visit to the Grand Canyon or Sedona. Rarely does it lead here, though.
We're going where the story isn't.
Or, at the very least, where it isn't anymore. The small town of Parker, Ariz., isn't where Jacoby Ellsbury was born, and it's not where he developed his love of baseball and other sports. It's not where he was discovered and subsequently drafted by the Red Sox. But this checkerboard community of Native American and non-tribal land lives deep within him, a crucial piece of his origin story. And in a way that straddles the line between comfortable and not, it continues to tell the story of America as a whole.
"I'm gonna be famous"
Parker sits along the Colorado River, butting up against the California border. It is compact, the type of place where a direction such as "Turn left at the stop light" needs no further description. "We're a nickname community," said Morris Sevada, known throughout Parker as "Bruiser."
Bruiser and his brother, Packy, coached Little League in Parker for about 25 years, finally giving up the position when their kids outgrew the league. But during their tenure, they spent a season coaching at least one talent they would never forget, a supernova so bright that he had to be moved to a higher league because he was seen as a hazard to the other kids.
"I'd love to say we made him into the ballplayer he is today, but that's not even close," Bruiser Sevada said. "We just put him in the lineup, let him play ball and did everything we could not to ruin him."
Ellsbury was born in Oregon, and but for about two middle-school years that he spent in Parker, he lived most of his pre-professional life in the Pacific Northwest, including his time at Oregon State University. But despite the short stint that he spent in Parker, he made a lasting impression.
Aaron Holt is a lifelong Parker resident, and he was a classmate of Ellsbury's at Le Pera Elementary School (which goes up to eighth grade) in Poston, Ariz., just to the south. He remembers that the kids in his class were always playing sports, whether it was basketball, football or baseball. And no matter what they were playing, Ellsbury drew all the eyeballs.
"This guy was a natural-born athlete," Holt said. "A lot of us think he could've gone to the NBA, the NFL, anything he wanted to do. In seventh grade, at maybe 5 foot 6, 5 foot 7, he could dunk the ball." As for football, "there was no tackling the guy. He had the meanest spin move, like you wouldn't believe. If you were lucky to even get your hands on him, he was quick with that arm and that spin move."
Holt remembers the future MLB All-Star as an incredibly nice kid, who fit in as part of a tight-knit unit despite being the new guy. But he also laughs at a memory that endures, of Ellsbury's sincere and clear-headed belief in what he was destined to accomplish.
"He wouldn't brag on himself or boast or anything, but he was just full of confidence, and he meant it," Holt said. "He was dead serious about what he knew he could do. Before he left in eighth grade, there were probably only about 30 of us in the class at Le Pera, and he signed his autograph on a little three-inch piece of paper and gave it to all of us and said, 'Keep this. I'm gonna be famous one day.'"
Parker was established as a steamboat depot on one square mile of land that belongs to the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), a collection of the Mojave, Hopi, Chemehuevi and Navajo tribes. The reservation occupies nearly 300,000 acres spanning the Arizona and California borders. To this day, the tribe flies a flag featuring four feathers (for the four represented nations), as well as sky, sun, earth and water (for the Colorado River). The flag was designed in 1979 by Margie McCabe -- Ellsbury's mother.
These days, you can barely throw a baseball in Parker without hitting a McCabe. Margie's father and mother, Franklin Sr. and Alice McCabe, moved to the reservation in the 1940s, to land that had recently been used as internment camps for Japanese-Americans during the early part of World War II. The McCabes came as part of a relocation from Navajo Nation, where they had no running water or electricity, and upon arriving received 80 acres of land to farm. For the next 25 years, they worked the soil, harvesting alfalfa, cotton and watermelon, but eventually, the work became too hard and the technology too expensive, so they leased the land to other farmers, which became their main source of income. Alice and Franklin Sr. have 13 living children, 42 grandchildren and more than 100 great-grandchildren. Jacoby is the oldest of Margie's four children, and he's believed to be the first player of Navajo descent to reach the Major Leagues.
When Alice fell ill, Margie brought her sons down to Parker for a few years while she cared for her mother. "My parents were not traditional, but they were into the language," McCabe said. "They were into the songs, and that's what I taught my boys." Today, she does her best to keep the language alive, teaching words whenever possible to Jacoby's children. She works to pass on a proud tradition of community and tribal heritage.
The history that she wants to pass along, though, isn't always so sunny. From the first contact between the native tribes and white settlers, the relationship has been fraught with danger of mass slaughter, plunder and horrors of forced assimilation. Tribal members, after losing their land, were forced to convert to their conquerors' religions. When public schools were closed to Native Americans, their children were shipped off involuntarily to residential schools, where whites tried to "civilize" them, an effort, advertised proudly, to "Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
Such traumas don't fade quickly. Life for Native Americans, particularly on reservations, is still rife with burdens. According to a report by the Center for Native American Youth, with data from the US Census Bureau, Native Americans face heightened levels of poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, obesity, diabetes and scores of other difficulties. The suicide rate among the tribes is two-and-a-half times the national average. As for education, while the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act gave parents legal rights to decide where to send their kids to schools, the statistics are still depressing. Just 13 percent of Native Americans have bachelor's degrees or higher, compared with 32 percent of the overall population.
"The majority of our people don't work," said Herman "T.J." Laffoon, a member of the CRIT tribal council. "We have programs to assist them, to help them with food stamps and whatnot, with the state and the county. There's so many things that are negative about it, but we try to provide that for them."
The provisions include collective efforts between the tribal and non-tribal communities in the Parker/CRIT area. There's the sewer system, a joint venture between the tribe and the Parker community that is believed to be the only arrangement of its kind in the country. And the public schools, as well as many of the municipal programs, are integrated, as well.
"Right now," Laffoon said from the office of the tribal council, "you're on the reservation, and kids nowadays, they don't even think you're on the reservation. You go to school with all races. Down at Poston, everyone goes to school there. We're not segregated in Indian schools anymore. … Everybody's a good friend of each other, they go to school together and play ball together, learn together. It's a good thing that we have that. It's a good relationship."
The sports connection is particularly strong. CRIT pays for its members to play youth sports in Parker, providing equipment and registration fees or donations, as needed. Confronted with troubling trends facing the Native American population as a whole, in which just 26.5 percent of youth meet the recommended standards for daily physical activity, there is a real interest in keeping kids moving. And the tribe's most recognizable member is determined to make that a big part of his legacy.
Dare to Rise
"I just want to pass that along to these kids -- let them know the importance of being outside, the importance of sports," Ellsbury said. "It just means so many things: working with a team, leadership, learning how to lose, learning how to win. There are just so many things that sports offers young kids that they can take away."
About 175 miles east of Parker lie the sparkling, perfect diamonds at the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick complex. The baseball oasis, located in Scottsdale, is the spring home to the Diamondbacks and Rockies.
For the sixth consecutive year, Ellsbury is running a baseball camp for Native American youth. This year's theme is "Dare to Rise," and the camp features coaches and trainers from Nike and the Diamondbacks organization. Kids -- including 20 from Parker -- come from tribes all around the Southwest, and the goal, beyond just running around for an afternoon, is to make the activity an expression of their heritage, as well.
"It's baseball, it's a mainstream sport, and you have these Native American youth here," said Jackie Blackbird, Nike Global Community Impact, North America N7 program manager. (The N7 line is specifically targeted toward Native American youth, and Ellsbury is a brand ambassador.) "I think it's important to blend that culture and heritage because it goes back to their identity. I think a lot of the kids here may also be from the urban area, but I know that what we're seeing and hearing from the young people is that they like that connection to culture, that they need that connection to culture, because it's really embedded within them."
Ellsbury begins the afternoon with a brief message to the attendees. "A lot of the stuff that you will be doing today," he said, "is stuff that I'll be doing when I get to Spring Training." After the quick talk, the kids disperse to various stations, Ellsbury moving back and forth from one to another.
He starts with a group of kids doing stretches on a back field. There are high leg lifts, power kicks, "booty kickers" (a quad stretch) and "donkeys," in which the kids reach their right hand to their left foot, and then repeat on the other side. Ellsbury high-fives the kids, and places his hands high enough to challenge them to reach with the high leg lifts. On the other side of the field, a group of girls is working on outfield drills -- mastering the first step and tracking balls over their head. Ellsbury offers tips and support after each girl's turn.
The station then moves on to basestealing drills and sprints, and Ellsbury heads to the batting cages. He stands with one young kid, helping him with footwork and replacing balls on the tee after each swing. After a swing and miss, Ellsbury is right there with the necessary encouragement. "That's why we've got three strikes," he said, extracting a nervous smile from the young man.
Standing over on the side of the cage complex, looking out at the young players, Ellsbury beams. "This is the best group of kids we've had," he said. "High energy. Talented. It's the one day I look forward to all year. I love seeing the smiles on their faces."
A one-day camp probably won't reveal the next great Native American Major Leaguer, but that's not really the point here. Ellsbury -- and, to its credit, Nike -- fully embrace the future generations. N7 takes its name from the Native American ethos of making sure that your efforts impact the next seven generations. And even in the planning stages, Ellsbury takes a hands-on role in developing the agenda for the day, making sure that the baseball instruction perfectly meshes with the communal aspect of the gathering of tribes.
The kids have the time of their lives on the fields, and the parents watching from the stands get to see a new generation embracing its history. "I think it's important to them that their children are recognized for their heritage," Blackbird said. "It is a form of recognition to be invited. I think it's important that there is unique access that an athlete like Jacoby is providing for these athletes. It's more than just being able to be at a camp where there's a professional athlete; [parents] are able to have their children see in Jacoby a role model."
Long before Ellsbury's time, Allie Reynolds -- a member of the Creek Nation -- thrived on the Bronx diamond. Today, his plaque hangs in Monument Park, the moniker "Superchief" appearing below his image and his name. His grandson, David, recalls that Reynolds was incredibly proud of his heritage, but never fully comfortable with the nickname, mainly due to his not being a chief of any kind. But he knew that it was never said by anyone in disrespect, at least not to his face.
"It's kind of the double-word," David Reynolds said. "Who says it, and in what context?"
Reynolds knows how much it would have meant to his grandfather to see the way that Ellsbury is representing -- and giving back to -- the Native American community today. To illustrate that point, he recalls a story that shows just how much times have changed.
It was Sept. 28, 1951, and the Yankees were celebrating American Indian Day at Yankee Stadium (it would become even more of a celebration later, when Reynolds threw his second no-hitter of the season in the first game of the doubleheader). A group of Chippewa tribal members came down from upstate New York to present Reynolds with a chief's headdress. But the team wouldn't allow the group to make the presentation on the field, so the small ceremony took place underneath the bleachers. The hidden, swept-aside nature of the ceremony stuck with Reynolds and his family, so to hear that Ellsbury is working hard to foster the opposite message is quite meaningful.
"To know that it is happening, and out in the open more, [my grandfather] would be thrilled," David Reynolds said. "That's probably the No. 1 thing that the Native American tribes need, is to get as many role models as possible in present-day life, dealing with present-day issues."
Shia James turns 13 this August, and she attended Ellsbury's camp in January. Her mother, Sunny, echoes David Reynolds' assessment. "Native American kids really look up to people who make it," she said. "Same with people who become doctors, who are able to succeed. A lot of Native Americans don't have the resources. She was really impressed. It makes her more proud to be Native American, knowing that he comes back to the reservation to help the kids. It makes her feel humbled and happy that he doesn't forget about where he's from."
Sunny and Shia are members of the Navajo tribe, but they live in Northeast Phoenix. They moved from Pinon, in the heart of Navajo Nation, because the opportunities for work are much greater, and although Sunny tries to keep Shia engaged with the culture from afar, she says that her daughter constantly wants to go back to the reservation, to be with her relatives. "She's always trying to find herself as a Navajo person," Sunny said. "Her struggle is that she wants to learn more about her culture, but it's not always easy, especially when you live in the city, far away from home."
Sunny knows that her own job opportunities are way better in Phoenix than they are in Pinon, and the same goes for Shia's chances of living the life everyone dreams for their children. "I see that potential in her," Sunny said. "I don't want her to lose that ability, or lose out on anything that could happen for her that wouldn't happen if she were out there."
It's an impossible choice, made easier, at least, on one day in January, when Sunny gets to watch her daughter enjoy the best of both worlds. She gets to see her receive instruction from a Big League star, one uniquely positioned to connect her athletic and cultural interests.
"Maybe he doesn't realize how big of an impact he has, but he does have an impact on us," Sunny said. "Even though we don't live on the reservation, he has a lot of impact on how Native American kids can see that you can be anything; you can do anything you put your mind to. It doesn't matter what race you are or what your skin color may be."
The Role Model
Which brings us full-circle, back to Parker, where McCabe family members try to keep the Navajo language alive, where children from families enrolled as members in CRIT play Little League with their neighbors from off the reservation.
Laffoon and his sister Amelia Flores, who was the CRIT librarian for 29 years, speak glowingly of the success that Ellsbury has enjoyed in Boston and New York. But they're just as proud of his high school degree and the years he spent at Oregon State. CRIT provides college scholarships for all of its members, and the tribal elders dream of successes in medical schools, law schools and, who knows, maybe the Big Leagues. But in the real world, they celebrate each semester a student finishes, each step that might seem small to people unfamiliar with the reservation, but that is exceptional to those who understand. In Ellsbury, they see a representative of all that they hold dear -- for the reservation life that surrounds them, for the tribal members and for the small river depot of Parker.
"He's someone for the young children to look up to," Flores said. "He's one of the few that has made a place out there and has the Navajo people in the forefront. He knows who he is."
Holt, the Le Pera classmate of Ellsbury's, recalls that when Ellsbury signed with Boston, every head in town suddenly grew a Red Sox hat. He might have only spent parts of two years in Parker, but he was a McCabe; he was family. He was a member of the tribe, even among those who weren't tribal members. Now, Holt's 8-year-old son sees Yankees highlights and his eyes dart between his father -- "Look, dad, there's your friend!" -- and the ballfield just across the street. It's a generational thing.
The Yankees have millions of fans, most of whom are more concerned with Ellsbury's on-field performance than where he grew up. But for the folks in this small corner of Arizona, Ellsbury's upbringing means everything. His history is their history. His lineage is their lineage. His success is their success. And part of what they adore most about him is that Ellsbury refuses to back away from that. You can be certain that they noticed when Jacoby and his wife, who welcomed a baby girl in February, gave her the middle name Parker.
"The best way to affect the next generation," Ellsbury said, "is talking to the youth, pulling them in the right direction, so that when they become parents, they can teach their kids, 'This is how we go about this. This is the right way that we do stuff.' It's almost like a domino effect on future generations."
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.