A.J. Ellis appreciates the unexpected bounty he is enjoying this baseball season.
"It's been an amazing first seven weeks of the year," the former Paul Laurence Dunbar standout said by phone from Los Angeles, where he has been a key contributor in the Dodgers' run to the best record in the major leagues.
"I'm completely humbled by the way the season's gone so far for me personally. But I'm more excited about the way the team's played. It's been an awesome time for all of us."
Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw are L.A.'s established stars, while Ellis is the overnight sensation who worked diligently for years to get his shot in the big-time.
After toiling in the minors for the better part of a decade, Ellis is making the most of his first chance at being an everyday catcher in the majors.
He's batting .327, has a team-high 24 walks, and his .449 on-base percentage is one of the best in baseball.
Ellis is doing the job behind the plate, too. He's handling a pitching staff that has the second-best ERA in baseball
What's been the secret to his breakthrough?
"The biggest change I made was mental," he said. "It was about understanding and locking in my identity, who I was as a player, as a teammate and as a person.
"Players at every level are always trying to overreach. For me, it was trying to show I could hit for more power, or show I could do something that was not physically possible for me to do."
Ellis had an epiphany of sorts in the off-season.
"I realized I'd be 31 this year, that my growing years were done, so I decided to just try to hone my craft, get better at the things I'm good at, and not worry what the naysayers say I can't do."
Ellis' new attitude paid off. He played well in spring training and earned the starting job. Then he got a confidence boost when he played well in the Dodgers' season-opening sweep of the Padres.
"In that first series in San Diego, I didn't feel overmatched at the plate," he said. "I felt in control in every at-bat, and I hit my first homer of the year on a slider.
"I left there thinking, 'I can do this, I can be an everyday player.'"
Having former Yankee great Don Mattingly as manager has benefited Ellis, too.
"I couldn't ask for a better guy to play for," he said. "His people management skills are why we're rolling the way we are."
Ellis said Mattingly also understands what players go through. "In the first meeting I had with him, he said, 'One promise I'll make is, I'll never forget how hard this game is to play.'"
Ellis knows that fact only too well.
After a solid college career at Austin Peay, he was an 18th-round draft choice of the Dodgers in 2003. Making the majors wasn't even in his dreamscape. He planned to play in the minors for a few years before getting into college coaching.
"That was my passion," he said.
But once he signed up for pro ball, he decided to give it his all. "I just kept grinding it out," he said. "I kept leaping farther. While other catchers kept falling by the wayside, they kept me around, and I kept climbing the ladder."
Ellis is now over the highest rung of the ladder, and is enjoying the view with his wife Cindy, a former volleyball star at Austin Peay, 4-year-old daughter Ainsley and 2-year-old son Luke.
Ellis' mom and dad, who now live in Bowling Green, and his brother Josh, a former Dunbar star who's living in Lexington after giving up baseball after topping out in Triple-A, visited L.A. a few weeks ago to celebrate Ainsley's birthday. A.J.'s folks plan to come back for Father's Day in a few weeks. They'll also try to see their son play throughout the season when the Dodgers are in Atlanta, Cincinnati and St. Louis.
As good as his life is right now, Ellis isn't about to take his new-found success for granted.
"It's taken me so long to get to this point, to be an everyday player and feel comfortable in the job, I always remind myself it can be taken away from me at any second.
"To use the old cliche I enjoy this day, enjoy the present, and try to maximize what I bring to the team."
"One way I'm doing that is not focusing on my own performance. Instead, I'm tuned in to what's going on with the team, especially the pitching staff. I'm pouring all my energy into that, and that frees me up to just go play.
"And I'm loving it."