CINCINNATI — There were the days back at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School when A.J. Ellis wouldn't allow himself to dream of the majors.
Then there was being passed over by the hometown school, and the slow climb up the minor-league ladder, and even the sacrifice of missing the birth of his second child.
The night of June 6, however, that all seemed worthwhile. That was the night the rookie backup catcher stroked an 11th-inning single to give the Los Angeles Dodgers a 5-4 victory over the visiting Atlanta Braves.
"Getting that hit," said Ellis on Tuesday, "and seeing them all come out of the dugout at me, that was pretty special."
In a special season. At the relatively late age of 29, Ellis has established himself as the Dodgers' No. 2 catcher.
"I feel comfortable here," said Ellis on Tuesday night, sitting in the visiting dugout three hours before a game with the Reds. "I know I belong here now."
He wouldn't have believed that back at Dunbar. Born in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Ellis was 13 when his family moved to Lexington, where even as a star catcher at Dunbar his dream was to play college baseball.
"I saw guys like Scott Hodges and Austin Kearns, and they were so much better than I was," he said. "I thought if that's how good you have to be, I'll never get there."
After attracting some late walk-on interest by UK, Ellis accepted a partial scholarship at Austin Peay for the playing time and to help his parents Gary and Barb (who now reside in Bowling Green), who had helped A.J. and his brother, Josh.
"It was the best decision I could have ever made," Ellis said, "because that's where I met my wife."
It also got him on the diamond and in front of the scouts. In 2003, the Dodgers drafted Ellis in the 18th round. He spent 2004 as backup catcher to Russell Martin at Vero Beach. It became Ellis' path to the bigs.
After some brief call-ups in 2008 and 2009, Ellis arrived at 2010 spring training figuring he'd be right back at Triple-A Albuquerque. He was, for one game.
The next night, Ellis was called to Miami to catch Dodgers knuckleballer Charlie Haeger against the Marlins. Veteran backup Brad Ausmus underwent back surgery. Ellis has played for the Dodgers ever since. What he's lacked in playing time — 11 games, 37 at-bats — he's received in praise.
"This kid is a little bit of a throwback to the old days," Dodgers Manager Joe Torre told the Los Angeles media.
"I feel like every manager I've ever played for has had confidence in me," Ellis said. "To have Joe Torre say something like that about you, that's the ultimate compliment."
Ellis is such a throwback he missed the birth of his son, Lucas Joshua, on May 29 in Milwaukee, where the couple lives to be close to Cindy Ellis' family. As an expectant mother during the off-season, Cindy said if her husband was in the minors he could return for the birth. If he was in the majors, no way.
"If I was a relief pitcher or a fourth or fifth outfielder it might have been different," Ellis said. "But being a backup catcher, if I'm in Milwaukee and Russell takes a foul tip, what do we do?"
Besides, Ellis witnessed the event via webcam from his hotel room in Colorado. This past Sunday night, Ellis finally got home to spend 24 hours with his wife, his 2-year-old daughter, Ainsley, and the new baby.
Meanwhile, Josh Ellis, a star right-hander at Dunbar, is pitching for Double-A Mobile in the Diamondbacks organization. The brothers talk four to five times a week.
"He's moving up a little quicker than I did," A.J. said.
But that's OK.
"I think starting out as a backup catcher really prepared me for this," Ellis said. "I learned how to prepare. I love the work. That's the best part to me. I just love the work part of it."
Sometimes, even the backup gets to be in the starring role. That's what happened June 6 when Ellis' walk-off hit drove in Martin, and as he rounded first he looked back at a charging group of Dodgers coming to mob the hero.
Only they weren't coming for Scott Hodges or Austin Kearns. They were coming for A.J. Ellis.
"That," said the former Dunbar Bulldog, "felt pretty good."
Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.