FORT MYERS, Fla. – The fine art of whining, perfected this spring by Curt Schilling and parroted Wednesday by Coco Crisp, has yet to rub off on the men poised to replace them. This is probably because Boston Red Sox rookies Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury – the next big things for the defending World Series champions – have nothing about which to complain.
Ah, innocence. At one time, Schilling and Crisp were Buchholz and Ellsbury – the talented right-hander replacing the injured pitcher and the talented center fielder replacing one of eroding skill. Today Schilling is stained with a blown-out shoulder and a blown-out-of-proportion ego causing him to second-guess team doctors. Crisp said he wants a trade if he doesn't win the Red Sox's center-field job, which, seeing as he was benched for Ellsbury during the World Series, means malcontent for sale.
Meanwhile, back in the section of the clubhouse where they appreciate playing for baseball's best franchise, Buchholz and Ellsbury played demure. Buchholz is 23. He threw a no-hitter in his second major-league start last season. If he stays healthy, he should anchor Boston's rotation for a decade. He grew up watching Schilling.
"And I know I'm not Curt Schilling," Buchholz said, "I won't try to be. I need to be someone who fills that fourth and fifth spot in the rotation."
Ellsbury is 24. He could easily have been World Series MVP. Chicks dig him. Men do too. If anyone is to unite the legions of Red Sox fans in collective admiration like David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, it will be Ellsbury. Crisp, on the other hand, might as well be Whitey Bulger, gone for good.
"Hopefully we push each other and that will make the team better," Ellsbury said. "You're supposed to win a spot. It shouldn't be given to you."
OK. It must be said: These are kids, rookies, so of course they're saying the right things. Were they to come out piehole a-flappin', a veteran would put Icy Hot in their jock straps or make them wear pink tutus. Humility is a necessity, though that doesn't negate its genuineness.
Buchholz and Ellsbury have been in this together for a while. About three years ago, they showed up in Lowell, Mass., Ellsbury polished at Oregon State, Buchholz raw from Angelina College, a Texas juco. Both were first-round picks, and the Red Sox decided to room them together.
When they walked in, the beds were sheetless, the room without air conditioning. Ellsbury sat on the plastic mattress.
"You'd roll over," he said, "and it'd go, 'Kchhhhh.' "
The beds softened as the men hardened. Buchholz grew into his 6-foot-3 frame and last season struck out more than 12 batters per nine innings over his 23 minor-league starts. Ellsbury crushed the ball at Double-A, continued banging at Triple-A and forced the Red Sox to call him up for good in September.
While he thrived in full-time duty, Buchholz's season ended. The Red Sox, wary of too big a year-to-year innings-pitched leap, shut him down before the postseason. He went home Oct. 5, spent a few days with family and headed to Gulf Breeze, Fla., to work out at the Andrews Institute, the sprawling sports-medicine complex opened by renowned surgeon James Andrews.
Before Buchholz left, pitching coach John Farrell pulled him aside.
"Hopefully, when I talk to you in a month," Farrell said, "I'll be asking what your ring size is."
Soon enough the Red Sox will gather that information – Buchholz still isn't sure, saying, "I've never worn a ring before" – for a ceremony in April. Ellsbury will get one too, capping quite the year.
"I got spoiled," he said. "Won a World Series. Was part of a no-hitter. Not a bad start."
And to think, it wasn't even their rookie season. It was more like freshman orientation. Good times. Lots of parties. Leaves you yearning for more.
Well, here are Buchholz and Ellsbury, one kid with a curveball "that looks like it's out of a Jugs machine," according to a scout, and the other kid with "the ability to be the best leadoff hitter in baseball within a year," according to another. They join Papi and Manny and Beckett, Lowell and Youkilis and Pedroia, Daisuke and Lester and Delcarmen, just two more scoops on top of a sundae that's bigger than any out there.
They'll battle each other for Rookie of the Year and play cards together on the back of the plane, laugh on the field and in the clubhouse, learn even more about the balance between stardom and humility.
Now that's something worth perfecting.