It was the summer of 2003, draft day, and the only two teams that had expressed interest in the Austin Peay senior catcher had already selected catchers. So Ellis despondently plopped into his father’s car to take a frustrated drive around his Lexington, Ky., neighborhood.
Suddenly, his mother’s cellphone, which happened to be on the seat beside him, rang. It wasn’t one of her friends. It was one of A.J.’s friends, and he was shouting.
“Tommy Lasorda just announced your name on the Internet! You’ve been drafted by the Dodgers!”
Ellis pulled to the side of the road, threw his hands in the air and screamed. Then he did a U-turn and headed for a sporting goods store, where he purchased every available Dodgers souvenir cap. He then drove home, strolled into the house, and shared his good news by modeling the caps for his stunned parents.
“I had every kind of Dodger cap — big, small and adjustable,” Ellis remembered with a grin.
A decade later, after parts of nine tough minor league seasons, after overcoming reams of bad scouting reports to become the Dodgers’ regular catcher last season at age 31, after growing into a steady leader this season, Ellis is still proudly wearing those lids.
Even cooler, now he gets them for free.
“I’ve had no expectations for any of this,” he said recently. “I have been truly blessed.”
It is the Dodgers who felt blessed a couple of weeks ago when Ellis hit the eighth-inning tiebreaking homer in Arizona to give them the victory that clinched their National League West Division title. The difficult regular-season journey fittingly ended not with a hit off the bat of the flashy Hanley Ramirez or swaggering Yasiel Puig or popular Adrian Gonzalez, but with a swing from the most athletically persistent of all of them. It was just another reminder of how a team that once didn’t believe in him, and rarely noticed him, today cannot live without him.
It is Ellis who has deftly handled the starting rotation with an earned-run average of 3.14, the best in baseball. It is Ellis who ranked second in the National League by throwing out 44% of potential base stealers. It is also Ellis who, despite a late-season slump that led to a .238 average, helped his teammates by working opposing pitchers to an average of 4.35 pitches per plate appearance, a number that would have led the major leagues except he fell short of the 500 plate appearances required to qualify.
“What A.J. has been through, it shapes him,” Manager Don Mattingly said. “It tells you a lot about who he is. It tells you a lot about his character.”
As a child in Cape Girardeau, Mo., A.J. and younger brother Josh would pretend they were major leaguers while playing catch in the backyard. Josh was Greg Maddux and A.J. was … Jody Davis?
“He never thought about being a star,” said Josh, a former Arizona Diamondbacks minor leaguer. “He was just a guy who worked hard and played the game.”
A.J. was an accomplished high school player for Dunbar High in Lexington, but nearby University of Kentucky offered him only a spot as a walk-on. Barely two months before he hoped to begin college somewhere, he was finally offered a 20% scholarship to Austin Peay in Tennessee.
Four years later, when he was drafted by the Dodgers, he had to wait a week to be signed because scout Marty Lamb was busy signing higher priority Chad Billingsley. And when he finally did sign, Ellis did so without an agent. The $2,500 bonus he received was used for rent and groceries.
On his way to Vero Beach for rookie camp, Ellis was forced to wait on yet another future Dodgers star. When Ellis landed at the Orlando airport, a Dodgers employee who showed up to meet him couldn’t leave until Matt Kemp had arrived.
Ellis said he was able to handle this sort of treatment for nearly the next decade — and actually grow from it — because he aspired to be a college coach.
“I looked at it like, this is my baseball graduate school,” he said. “I would learn about the game, network with people, and then go back to college and coach somewhere.”
The snubs kept coming. Ellis kept quiet and kept learning. He spent two seasons in Class A , two seasons in double A and parts of four seasons at triple A being continually pushed aside for top prospects such as Russell Martin, and also regular guys like Gary Bennett, Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro.
In the low minors, he was Martin’s backup, catching only once every five days when Billingsley pitched. When he asked a team official about playing more, his hopes were again dashed.
“I thought I caught Chad because they wanted me to mentor him, but I was told that I caught him because they didn’t need much offense on days he pitched,” Ellis said.
His career reached its nadir after the 2007 season in Jacksonville. He was a 26-year-old journeyman who wasn’t making as much money as wife Cindy, who worked as a pastry chef. They were struggling financially to the point where they shared a house with three other players.
A.J. told Cindy that he would quit if she thought he was wasting their time. She responded with words he still hears today.
“I told him as long as he still loved the game, he should still play, that we would figure it out,” Cindy said. “Even now, when he’s going though a slump, I always ask him, ‘Are you having fun, are you loving it?’”
The future coach finally became a starting big league catcher and, oh, he’s still loving it. Ellis is that rare player who has been able to assimilate into a big league culture without abandoning his simple roots.
In the richest clubhouse in baseball, Ellis is the guy who spends the winter in the chilly suburbs of Milwaukee, driving a 1999 Chevy Prism with 130,000 miles and two missing hubcaps.
“It was my wife’s first car. She bought it with her baby-sitting money. There’s no way we’re giving that up,” he said.
On a team filled with sophisticated and popular stars, Ellis is the guy who passes out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. His father runs a Smucker’s plant that produces the popular “Uncrustables” and Ellis is a leading advocate.
“He is using Uncrustables to show that this is how you feed a high-powered athlete,” Gary Ellis said with a chuckle.
Then there was the time Ellis showed the ultimate steadiness by calmly speeding toward a rural hospital while his wife gave birth in the passenger seat.
“Let’s be honest, he was freaking out,” Cindy said. “But he hung on.”
It is a well-worn story from last October that is worth retelling.
Cindy, pregnant with their third child, began severe contractions almost immediately after her water broke. She gave birth to Audry in the front seat of her father’s Toyota Camry while A.J. was racing toward the hospital.
“I still can’t believe it happened,” A.J. said. “But at least we’ll have a cool story to tell my daughter one day.”
The date of birth was Oct. 12. The place of birth was I-43 south, between exit 42 and 43.
No, they aren’t planning on going back there to celebrate her first birthday this month because, as Cindy said, “We are planning on still being busy in the playoffs.”
Indeed, the Ellis family will be in the stands to cheer his every labored step this postseason, marveling at the wonder of it all, undoubtedly wearing every kind of Dodgers cap … big, small and adjustable.