BOSTON - Jacoby Ellsbury's return to Fenway Park demonstrated to us why he is the ideal poster boy for this next phase of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.
Sanitized. Indifferent. Without much rowdiness or rancor. Ellsbury generated some boos when he first stepped to the plate -- it's true Derek Jeter was applauded -- but the crowd's response Tuesday night lacked conviction.
We got the sense those fans booed Ellsbury because they felt that had to.
In truth, they could have cheered him. Ellsbury was a homegrown star in Boston. He helped lead the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2007 and 2013. Ellsbury didn't possess the charisma of a David Ortiz or Jonny Gomes, but he blended in well enough.
So Ellsbury took $153 million from the Yankees -- after the Red Sox didn't even bother to get involved in the discussion. Is that even a crime anymore in these parts? The Fenway Faithful got worked up for Johnny Damon's homecoming in 2005 after he bolted Yawkey Way for River Avenue, but that was two rings ago.
With Ellsbury, what is there to hate? Nothing, really. By and large, players sign with teams that offer them the most money. It's an economic reality of the game, and the Red Sox made a conscious financial decision not to go down that road with Ellsbury. Wasn't his fault.
"I'm not going to get into that," said Ellsbury, who then laughed a bit uncomfortably. "I appreciated my time here."
No sarcasm, no innuendo. Ellsbury was reminding us once again that it's just business with him -- nothing personal. And we can say the same about the way the Yankees and Red Sox approach each other on the field these days. We're old enough to remember the animosity between Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk. Pedro Martinez dumping Don Zimmer on his head. Ryan Dempster drilling Alex Rodriguez.
Fenway Park had the feel of a UFC octagon whenever the Yankees would visit. The Bronx, too, buzzed with a tension that felt like it could explode on any pitch.
But with so many of those old antagonists moving on, we're left with frequently revolving rosters and fewer villains. Or heroes, depending on your opinion of pinstripes. And the teams are feeling it.
"The names have changed," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, who spent four years as pitching coach (2007-10) before returning for the top job. "Where I think both teams had more stability year after year -- or just longer tenured players on each side -- there might have been tempers that flared because of a lot of history with one another a little bit more in those times."
The Yankees not only swiped Ellsbury from the Red Sox last winter, they reloaded with others that had no emotional ties to this rivalry -- Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Masahiro Tanaka. If anyone figured to provide the necessary spark, it should be Ellsbury. But he doesn't make for a good anti-hero. Not like Damon and Roger Clemens did back in the day.
When Ellsbury first took the field Tuesday for batting practice, he was hardly noticed. It wasn't until his face flashed on the video screen for the pregame intros did anyone bother to boo.
Finally, after Ellsbury ripped a fan-deflected triple high off the centerfield wall, the fans seemed to wake up. They also got on him briefly when Ellsbury made a sliding catch to rob Grady Sizemore leading off the first inning. It was pretty tame stuff, though.
The only real interaction between Ellsbury and the Fenway fans came before the start of the second inning, when the Red Sox showed a video tribute to him on the centerfield screen. The soundtrack was Springsteen's "Born to Run" and there were many scenes of him celebrating when he was a member of the Red Sox.
As Ellsbury explained before the game, those feelings don't just disappear when you switch uniforms -- even if it's Red Sox to Yankees. To Ellsbury, it was that simple. All his family and friends had to do was get new caps, jerseys and throw pillows. Swapping the old style B for an interlocking NY carried the emotional weight of buying a new bedroom set.
"They've always said they're Jacoby fans," Ellsbury said. "So it doesn't matter what team I played for."
It used to matter with the Yankees and Red Sox. Not so much anymore.