A.J. Ellis has had a good spring, as a basketball fan and baseball player.
The Paul Laurence Dunbar basketball alumnus (class of 1999) was thrilled that the Bulldogs won the Sweet Sixteen championship.
“I had a game (the Sunday of the state finals), and when I came off the field I had a barrage of text messages from some high school teammates letting me know Dunbar had pulled it out,” Ellis said. “I was so excited for them, for the school and all the alums. I know I was excited.”
And Ellis is happy to still be with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’s earned a spot as a backup catcher on the 25-man roster, although he was in the starting lineup on opening day for the fifth year in a row as the preferred battery mate of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
“I keep tricking them,” Ellis said with a smile after a spring training workout last week.
Ellis is one of those inspiring against-the-odds baseball stories. Nobody expected him to make it to the majors, but he did because of hard work, determination and a team-first attitude.
He’s been with the Dodgers 13 years, since they drafted him in the 18th round out of Austin Peay.
Ellis figured to give the minors a shot before maybe pursuing a career as a high school or college baseball coach. But he kept making an impression and kept moving up in the Dodgers’ organization.
“When I’ve needed to play well in front of the right people, I’ve been able to perform,” he said.
He played in 44 games in the big leagues in 2010 and 31 in 2011 before earning the starting spot behind the plate in 2012, ’13 and ’14.
Ellis was a backup last year, and that will be his role this season.
He expects to play 60 to 70 games and probably will get to catch most of Kershaw’s starts because they’ve developed such good chemistry.
You build a reputation in the game, and you’ve got to live up to that in the way you work and the way you prepare. And you build relationships as a catcher with your pitchers and pitching coach, and those bonds help carry you through.
“You build a reputation in the game, and you’ve got to live up to that in the way you work and the way you prepare,” Ellis said. “And you build relationships as a catcher with your pitchers and pitching coach, and those bonds help carry you through.”
Ellis and Kershaw made for an impressive duo in Los Angeles’ 15-0 season-opening win at San Diego on Monday night. Ellis drove in three runs. Kershaw allowed one hit and struck out nine in seven innings.
The Dodgers changed managers this offseason — Dave Roberts replaced Don Mattingly — but they retained pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.
“One of the biggest things in my career is that I’ve made it about other people rather than myself, and what I can do for a pitching staff. I think that’s helped keep me around even when my bat wasn’t there,” said Ellis, who has a career batting average of .241.
Ellis turns 35 Saturday, so he knows his playing days are numbered.
What’s next for him?
.241 A.J. Ellis’ career batting average
He said that question comes up “more and more often, especially back home” in Wisconsin in the offseason with his wife, Cindy, and their kids, Ainsley, 7; Luke, 5; and Audrey, 3.
“I definitely want to stay involved in the game in some capacity,” he said. “I love baseball. I love coming to work every day. I love being part of a group of men trying to achieve something really special together.
“I’m not sure if that means coaching or potentially managing, or being in the front office as an assistant to a general manager or something like that.
“But I do know I want to stay in baseball, maybe even sitting in a booth, looking down and trying to share this great game with listeners and viewers.”
If Ellis gets into coaching, his background should serve him well. Some of the most respected managers in the majors are former catchers, including Joe Maddon of the Cubs, Bruce Bochy of the Giants, Ned Yost of the Royals, Joe Girardi of the Yankees, Mike Matheny of the Cardinals, Brad Ausmus of the Tigers and Bob Melvin of the A’s.