As others gush about his future, A.J. Ellis stays in the present
By Jon Weisman
You hear it all the time. It’s almost like his name isn’t his name anymore.
He’s not A.J. Ellis. Nope, not just.
He’s “A.J. Ellis, he can do anything he wants in the game after he retires.”
The entire baseball world is like a grandmother gushing about her son’s son, so proud and so eager to show him off: “You’ve got to come and see the A.J.”
For good reason. Smart, affable, funny: Ellis is a dream candidate for a post-playing position. Baseball has seen its share of player-managers, but Ellis walks onto the field before a game, dons a headset for an interview, and just like that, you’re wondering if there could ever be an announcer-manager.
The only thing is … Ellis isn’t there yet. Not nearly.
Even at age 35, his mind is still focused between the lines. He has never been one for looking too far beyond, and he’s not starting now.
“I try not to,” he said earlier this week, shortly after a workout in Dodger Stadium’s sudden summer heat. “If you’re too worried about the future, your anxiety will just destroy you as well. So I do my best really to just stay in the present, and try to get better every single day.”
In short, his ballplaying mortality will have to wait.
This isn’t a personality shift, a shield he has thrown up to hide from his birthdays. Ellis has been this way since before he turned pro — before he knew he’d even have the chance.
“I never really had a Major League dream,” said Ellis, an 18th-round draft pick out of Austin Peay in 2003. “That’s what’s funny. I love baseball, and I want to keep going. (But) if at the end of my college career, if no one had drafted me, if there wasn’t an opportunity, I think I would have been OK.
“I just always have the faith and confidence that there’s a great plan in my life, and it’s going to be taken care of, that as long as I continue to be a man of integrity and a man of character, things will work out the way they’re supposed to work out.”
Ellis has been a Major Leaguer for long enough, dating back to his debut in the ninth inning of an 8-2 Dodger victory at Pittsburgh on September 15, 2008 — he caught 13 pitches from Brad Penny — that it’s hard for some to remember when reaching the Show was a massive improbability for him. Ellis himself doesn’t actively think about overcoming the odds. It’s just an implicit part of who he is.
“When I was drafted, I didn’t have Major League expectations,” he said. “It wasn’t my goal to play in the Major Leagues. My goal when I got drafted was to play as hard as I could, learn as much as I could about baseball, make amazing contacts, and then when it was done, go be a college baseball coach or go coach professionally and see what happens.
“I knew how daunting and how difficult and how few people climb the ladder and make it to the Major Leagues, and so I think that actually benefited me. I didn’t have that pressure, that weight of expectation on me to make it.”
So Ellis pressed on, one foot in front of the other, learning to walk, figuratively and literally. Near the end of 2006, in the Arizona Fall League, his on-base percentage was a soaring .485. And Ellis allowed himself to climb one small rung higher up the ladder of hope.
“I thought, ‘Maybe there’s an opportunity for me maybe to break in, but as a backup catcher,” Ellis said. “I’m gonna be a backup catcher for sure. Russell Martin was our everyday catcher, and I backed up Russell in Vero Beach. You know, maybe for me, that’s the plan.”
If you’re still thinking that was too conservative a goal, Ellis might argue the opposite. Over the next five seasons (from 2007-2011), Ellis was never more than the Dodgers’ No. 3 catcher, playing only when the starter and the backup were both injured or needing rest.
Ellis aged from 26 to 30 in those years, and even he admits to moments of impatience. And then, he flashes the dry, self-deprecating wit that makes him such a post-career prize.
“I was frustrated,” he said, “but I came to find out there was a bigger plan for me, and that was for the Dodgers to go bankrupt and have no money to spend on a catcher in 2012.”
At the summit
Humility aside, it’s not as if Ellis backed into the job. Two days before the final month of the 2011 season, the Dodgers released Dioner Navarro, removing one roadblock behind soon-to-be free-agent starter Rod Barajas, and Ellis went 13 for 40 with a .976 OPS down the stretch. In 244 career plate appearances spread over his first four MLB years, Ellis had a .360 on-base percentage.
“We were kind of out of the pennant race in 2011,” Ellis said. “so I got a chance to play a lot in September and I played pretty well. I caught a lot, got to learn a lot more from Rick Honeycutt about game prep and calling a game. … The more success I had in September, the more I felt I belonged.”
Still, he assumed nothing. Tim Federowicz had come over in a midseason trade. Matt Treanor arrived as an offseason free agent. He arrived at Spring Training ready to fight for a job — and then, somewhat to his amazement, learned he wouldn’t have to.
“When I got to camp in 2012,” Ellis remembered, “Don Mattingly called me in right away and said, ‘You’re the guy.’ So it kind of was great for me — it was the first time I had ever had a Spring Training where I felt like I could really build up to a season. That meant a lot that Donnie called me in and kind of took that weight off me. Obviously, if I had fallen on my face and not gotten a hit or anything like that, it might have been a different story, but I was able to really focus on just getting ready for the 2012 season.”
It was, in a sense, as big a moment as being drafted, as big a moment as the first call to the big leagues.
“Yeah, that validation, that affirmation, just was crucial for me,” Ellis said. “I think that was definitely a turning point for me, when Donnie did that, gave me a chance.”
During this time, there was a cadre of Dodger fans almost as eager to see Ellis get a chance to start as he was. He became a fan favorite, a social media hero. Every walk he drew was cause for revelry, and there was plenty — 43 bases on balls before the 2012 All-Star Game, for which fans campaigned his selection as if it were for the nation’s highest office.
Obama. Romney. Ellis.
“It was amazing,” he recalled. “That first half was really special. I was able to get off to a good start and play well. We played really well as a team. Great to be a part of that group of guys. … I think people really gravitated to my story, that I was kind of a late bloomer.”
Ellis would reward the fans, not only with his appealing play and personality, but truly memorable moments as well, including home runs in the 2013 and 2015 National League West division-clinchers and in the 2013 and 2014 NL postseason.
“It was awesome to be embraced by the Dodger fans,” Ellis said, “and still to this day, Dodger fans are so good to me and my family. It’s a really special place for us.”
All along, a different kind of embrace was developing between Ellis and Clayton Kershaw, fast becoming his closest friend and, by happenstance, the best pitcher in baseball. Asked to contemplate a parallel universe where he never met Kershaw, Ellis is honest about the implication.
“There’s probably a chance I wouldn’t be here now still, if I was a Dodger and Clayton was pitching somewhere else,” Ellis said. “Clayton, without a doubt, our relationship and our ability and our chemistry on the field, and sometimes him going to bat for me, has definitely allowed me to (keep) my role here for the Dodgers. He’s a tremendous friend, a tremendous teammate and a guy I love to go to battle with. He’d be a guy, if he wasn’t here, if he was pitching for someone else, you would just be in awe of from afar. A guy you’d say, ‘Man, that’s somebody I’d love to catch.’
Ellis knows a great deal about his place in the Dodger and baseball universe, but one thing had completely escaped him. As of Wednesday, he had caught in 512 games, more than all but five other catchers in the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Even including the 100-plus years dating back to Brooklyn, Ellis squats on the verge of entering the top 10.
For a long moment, the revelation stunned him into silence.
“That’s the first time I’ve heard that,” he finally said. “That’s hard for me to fathom right now. It’s amazing. This franchise on this field, this stadium, to have caught that many games and then rank that high among many amazing catchers in Dodger history, kind of takes me aback right now. It feels great.”
A reluctant gaze beyond
On June 22, the Dodgers’ backup catcher began the evening on the bench against for the third straight game and sixth of the past seven. When he entered as a pinch-hitter against Washington, with two runners on base, he was asked to sacrifice. His 2016 on-base percentage stands at .294, a career-low. He has four extra-base hits in 94 at-bats.
People love Ellis, so there’s a reluctance to confront his current production. It’s much easier to say, “A.J. Ellis, he can do anything he wants in the game after he retires.”
A year ago, when his playing time was first reduced by the acquisition of Yasmani Grandal, Ellis also got off to a slow start. Through May 25, he was 5 for 43 with five walks and a .348 OPS. But suddenly he solved everything, and for the rest of the season, he had a .398 OBP while slugging .493 — the best numbers of his career.
Ellis isn’t blind to his current stats, blind to the resemblance, “statistically and numbers-wise,” to the struggle that started 2015.
“But I feel so much better this year,” Ellis maintained, “as far as the way I feel at the plate and the confidence I have. Last year, I was completely lost early in the year. April and May were really hard — (I was) just clueless offensively. I think a lot of that was transitioning to a new role, transitioning to sporadic playing time, kind of coming to grips with that role. But June things kind of turned for me, and I was really able to hold onto it for the rest of the season.
“This year, I kind of have more of an understanding of my role, what my job is on the team. I felt like I’ve had better at-bats this year, I know the numbers are a little bit similar, but I do know that things are going in the right direction and my confidence is there.”
Catcher is a punishing position, but counterintuitively, backup catchers have remarkable staying power in the Major Leagues. Nowhere else on a roster are smarts and attitude more appreciated, let alone the ability to counsel pitchers and generally be unflappable. The last time the Dodgers won the World Series, 39-year-old Rick Dempsey caught Orel Hershiser’s final pitch.
In the past 15 years, the Dodgers alone have used 10 other catchers older than 35. Multiply that by 29 other teams if necessary, and a clubhouse locker awaits Ellis probably for as long as he wants.
But sitting with Ellis in the shade of the Dodger dugout, the heat of the summer and the grind of the season gather before you like marauders at the gate. You can’t help but wonder, what will the next step be?
After all, he is A.J. Ellis. He can do anything he wants in the game after he retires.
“I think the ‘anything in the game’ might be a little far-fetched,” Ellis countered. “But the fact that I do want to stay involved in the game of baseball is completely accurate. My wife Cindy — she already knows this is going to be a lifelong journey for us. I’m not somebody who’s going to be able to stay home and drop the kids off and go to the country club. I want to stay active. I love baseball too much. I love coming to work. I love being part of a group of guys trying to do something really special. And I also love talking about the game of baseball.
“Hopefully there’s opportunities and avenues for me, and fortunately I’ve had a lot of great people I’ve gotten to meet, both in the coaching world and in the broadcasting world, that I can really lean on, to kind of paint a picture of what life after baseball can be like.”
For more than half his life, interrupted only by family, friendship and faith, Ellis has been devoted to baseball. Within that realm, however, he can see himself toggling between job descriptions once he has taken his last official swing. That’s “the great thing about it,” he said.
“You’ve seen guys bounce back and forth, between the broadcast world and the coaching world, and front-office-type things too,” Ellis noted. “Getting caught up in the anxiety of trying to make a decision right now about that is wasting time, but definitely, it’s humbling to be thought of as someone who could wear a number of different hats after his career is over.”
But that minute of speculation, if it was even that long, is quickly abandoned, and Ellis’ thoughts turn back to where he’s most comfortable: the present.
In 2003, he just wanted to be in the game. In 2006, he just wanted a chance to play in the big leagues. In 2011, he just wanted a shot at being a regular.
In 2016, there’s really only one grail left.
“Once you’re here now, and this becomes part of your livelihood and your job, you want to achieve the highest award you can,” he began. “And the thing I’ve always said is: The individual legacy of A.J. Ellis, there won’t be one. There won’t be an individual legacy for me. I’m not like Clayton. I’m not like Adrian Gonzalez or Chase Utley, those guys who are on a possible Hall of Fame trajectory. But I want to be part of a Dodgers World Championship team, so when fans or baseball people remember teams, they remember who was on that team and who helped bring a championship back to L.A.
“I’ve said earlier this year, I’m getting pretty sick and tired of watching Kirk Gibson hit that game-winning home run. I mean, it’s a special, iconic moment in our sport, but it’s time for new memories to be on the board.”
A.J. Ellis can do anything he wants in the game after he retires. The only question that remains is whether he can do everything he wants before then.