Mark Story: At Cumberlands, slain officer Ellis remembered as 'best baseball player in school history'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 24, 2014 

Bardstown police officer Jason Ellis, 33, was shot multiple times last May when he got out of his cruiser to pick up tree limbs on an exit ramp of the Blue Grass Parkway.

When swinging a baseball bat, Jason Ellis could make an emphatic first impression.

Terry Stigall initially saw Ellis, a Union Township, Ohio, product, in 1998. Stigall was the head baseball coach at the school then known as Cumberland College. Ellis was a catching prospect that former Cumberland player Mike Hatfield, his summer coach, brought to Williamsburg for a tryout.

"We threw him eight pitches," Stigall said. "He crushed about four of them out of the park. I remember thinking 'We need to get this guy.'"

One year ago, a bewildering act of evil attached the sorrowful phrase "slain police officer" to the name of Jason Ellis.

At the private, Southern Baptist-affilliated school now known as the University of the Cumberlands, there is a very different label that applies to the former Bardstown police officer.

"Jason Ellis is arguably the best baseball player ever to play at this school," says Cumberlands Athletics Director Randy Vernon.

When Ellis left Cumberlands after four seasons (1999-2002), he was the career leader in hits (246), doubles (60), home runs (34), RBI (183) and batting average (.389).

After he hit .447 his senior season, he signed as a non-drafted free agent with the Cincinnati Reds.

"This is my 20th season (of coaching)," says current Cumberlands baseball coach Brad Shelton. "Jason Ellis was the best all-around player I've ever coached."

Johnny Bench's number

When Ellis arrived in Williamsburg as a 6-foot-1, 180-pounder, the right-handed hitter pulled everything to left field.

"We had these tennis courts out behind the left-field wall, and there was a parking lot out there," Stigall said. "I tell you, Jason, he was damaging cars."

For Ellis to fulfill his potential, however, Stigall believed he needed to learn to hit to all fields. "By his sophomore year, he really started to hit the ball more to right, right-center field," Stigall said. "He figured out 'Hey, I can hit it just as far to right field as to left.'"

At Cumberlands, Ellis wore No. 5. The reason? "Johnny Bench's number," says Winston Harris, a former Patriots pitcher who was a roommate of Ellis.

By his junior season in 2001, Ellis was a star player on a struggling team. Cumberlands went 7-34. After Stigall stepped down with health concerns, Shelton was hired from Saint Catharine to replace him.

"When you inherit a senior, the best player on the team, possibly the best player in the conference and one of the best catchers in the NAIA, he could have made it difficult for me," Shelton said. "But he was exactly the opposite."

In the school cafeteria, Shelton kept noticing Ellis eating with freshmen from the Cumberlands JV team. At a local pond where the Cumberlands athletes went to fish, Shelton would see Ellis with guys who'd been cut from the baseball team.

"Not a guy trying to 'big-time' people," Shelton said.

At Cumberlands, Ellis, the baseball star, met a cheerleader from Bardstown, Amy Phillips. Eventually, she would become his wife.

For all the attention Ellis earned with his bat, his throwing arm may have been his most impressive tool.

"People would not run on him," Shelton said. "You hear baseball people talk about speeding up their pitchers' (delivery)? Well, we were trying to slow down our pitchers, bait people into running to at least give Jason a chance to throw."

With Ellis starring as a senior in 2002, Cumberlands posted a 27-win improvement (from 7-34 to 34-29) from the season before.

"He was not a streaky guy. He was a consistent guy," Harris said. "You knew every game he was going to go 3-for-4, 2-4, 1-4, throw out a couple of base runners if they tried him, call a good game behind the plate and handle his pitchers well."

After his senior season, Ellis signed with the Reds.

"He went up to a tryout, and it wasn't one of those open tryouts, but a real one," said Harris, now the head baseball coach at South Laurel High School. "They asked him to stay after, and he got to catch batting practice for Ken Griffey Jr."

Ellis came back to Williamsburg with batting gloves and a bat Griffey Jr. autographed for him.

In the Reds chain Ellis never advanced above the low minors, playing in Sarasota, Fla., and Billings, Mont.

"After the second year, he had shoulder surgery and it only recovered, he told me, about 80 percent," Stigall said. "If he had stayed healthy, I really believe he'd have been able to move up the ladder some."

'I broke down'

Before dawn last May 25, Shelton received a call from a friend who lived near Bardstown. "He told me he had seen a posting on Facebook that said pray for the family of officer Jason Ellis, who had been shot and killed," Shelton said.

The current Cumberlands baseball coach called his predecessor, Stigall, who had recruited Ellis. "I broke down," Stigall said. "(Shelton) did, too."

Later that morning, Harris was preparing to conduct a pre-regional tournament baseball practice at South Laurel. He got a text from his wife imploring him to call immediately.

"She said 'I don't want to be the one to tell you this,'" Harris said. "I kept saying 'Are you sure? Are you sure?'"

When his dreams of being a big-league baseball player ended, Ellis settled in the hometown of his wife. For seven years, he worked as a Bardstown police officer.

Last May 25th, Ellis finished his shift around 2 a.m. Heading home, he was at Exit 34 off the Bluegrass Parkway when he encountered tree limbs in the road. He got out of his police cruiser to remove them.

He was hit by multiple gunshot blasts.

By the time the Kentucky State Police arrived at 3:16 a.m., Ellis was lying outside his vehicle, dead.

Left behind were a young widow and two little boys, ages 7 and 6 at the time of the shooting, who will grow up without their dad.

The case remains unsolved.

This year, before the Cumberlands baseball season began, Shelton distributed to the Patriots players an article written by a Cincinnati sportswriter describing what had made Ellis a good teammate.

"It changed me," Shelton says of Ellis' death. "You know, I still want to win, but it's not my end-all, be-all now. Our school is a Christian school, and since what happened to Jason, I've really emphasized with the players treating other people the right way."

Said Harris: "Jason Ellis was the best baseball player I ever played with, and he was probably the best dude, too. I've got two boys of my own. Someday, in their lives, I hope they meet a Jason Ellis."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory.

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