As basketball became front and center in Ellis Whitman's life, baseball took a back seat. Actually, it was more like it was packed away in the trunk.
It hardly shows in the way the Glendale Community College first baseman can dig out a ball on a tricky hop or clear the fences with one smooth swing, but Whitman spent his days as a prep standout at his native Seattle's O'Dea High leading the Fighting Irish to basketball titles while giving little thought to baseball.
That's not to say baseball is new to him.
"I have videos of me playing when I was 2 with a Whiffle-ball bat," Whitman says. "I was obsessed with baseball until about the age of 11."
But, athletically speaking, Whitman, who was the only non-senior starter for O'Dea's 2007 state-champion basketball team, became a product of his environment.
"It's basketball-heavy out there [in Seattle] and there's a lot less baseball," says Whitman, who moved to Southern California in 2008 for his senior year. "I went from being obsessed with baseball to living basketball to moving down here and being back to living baseball."
Having completed his transplant from the rainy Pacific Northwest to sunny Southern California, the clouds seem to have parted for good over Whitman's baseball career, which is on a major uptick on the heels of his exploits during the Vaqueros' recent run to the state championship tournament.
But while Glendale college's historic season is now just that, the summer is just getting started for Whitman, who has been tabbed as one of the cornerstones of the Glendale Angelenos, a first-year California Collegiate League team that begins its season at 6:30 p.m. today at Stengel Field.
"The athleticism is No. 1," says Angelenos team president and coach Tony Riviera of how Whitman caught his eye last summer when he became a member of Riviera's Southern California Collegiate League SoCal Cardinals. "When you take a look at a kid that's 6-foot-5 and has never played high school baseball because he's an elite basketball player and all of a sudden you see how he did last summer on our team. He really made an impact on the Southern California Collegiate League."
Whitman was a starter in the SCCL's All-Star game and a major contributor in helping the Cardinals post a 20-15 record in their own inaugural season.
"It was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of business," Whitman says of his season with the Cardinals. "We got a lot of wins, we did really well for first-year team in that league."
It was back to business this spring with Glendale college, where Whitman batted .258 during the regular season, but was one of the hottest hitters down the stretch of a season that saw the Vaqueros win the Western State Conference South Division title and come just one win a way from playing for the state crown.
Starting all nine playoff games, Whitman batted .415 (17 for 41) with a home run, nine runs batted in and 10 runs scored, while swiping three bases in four tries. He also fielded his position perfectly in the playoffs, with no errors in 87 chances.
"He got a lot of hits for us during the year [at Glendale college] and we're just excited that he's on the team with us with the Angelenos," says Vaqueros third baseman Sako Chapjian, who will reprise that role on the Angelenos. "He's going to be a huge part of the team.
"During the season [at GCC], he was always on base. Whenever he was on base when I was up, it helped me a lot getting decent pitches. He always finds a way to get on."
Batting out of the No. 2 hole, Whitman notched a hit in every playoff game but one and recorded seven multi-hit games.
With their backs against the wall in a pair of elimination games at Stengel Field against Cypress on May 7 in the regional playoffs, Whitman went a combined four for nine with two RBI and two runs, driving in a run during the 9-8 come-from-behind win that saw GCC advance on a walk-off hit.
Whitman was unconscious during the Super Regional round at Rio Hondo College May 13-15, collecting seven hits and driving in four runs, including a three-RBI, two-run, two-steal game in the 11-5 clincher over Southwestern.
"You see the power is starting to come," says Riviera, who plans to showcase Whitman in the outfield this summer, as well, to give pro scouts the full picture of Whitman's skills. "And he was one of the top defenders in junior college baseball this year. He just became an impact guy for Glendale at the end. You want that to kind of transfer [to the Angelenos]."
He rode his hot streak right into the state championships opener, where he belted a tape-measure home run en route to finishing two for five with three RBI in a 21-9 loss to San Joaquin Delta.
"I can't really explain how great that was," Whitman says of the Vaqueros' run to state. "That was a moment that all of us will remember for the rest of our lives. It was really the most fun I've had on a baseball team, for sure. It was like a rollercoaster ride, except that the best part seemed to be happening over and over again — there was no down part of the whole season.
"It does kind of stink when you're hitting so well, you're so hot and you have to stop [playing] because of the end of the season. I'm excited to be back out there, that's for sure."
Whitman said experiencing all the thrills of the postseason and going on the road together forged a bond between him and his teammates that had as much to do with the team's success as anything. As he gets ready to transition to the CCL, he'll have no less than 10 of his Vaqueros' teammates by his side as members of the Angelenos.
"It's always important to be comfortable in anything you do," Whitman says. "Especially in baseball, knowing what people are going to do, how they're going to play, how they're going to act, it's definitely nice for me. I'm excited for that because I made some very strong bonds with some of those kids and playing with them for longer is going to be fun.
"We could match up with any team, I would say for sure, with the talent we had on that Glendale [college] team, but the thing that got us to [be one of] the top four teams in the state was how we bonded together. If we can get that same thing going with this team, chemistry makes a good team great."
Whitman said his favorite part of the college season was silencing those who doubted the Vaqueros could go deep in the playoffs. As an expansion club competing in one of the most prestigious summer collegiate leagues in the country, Whitman and the Angelenos will no doubt also have something to prove.
And, while looking to help the Angelenos win games and respect, Whitman will also be looking to prove himself at the next level.
"He saw some real power pitchers toward the end of the season and at the state championship," Riviera said. "There's a reason those other teams got there."
"I think that he's going to be an impact player. A lot of scouts are asking about him now."
While he says he's ultimately undecided on where he'll continue his college career in the fall, Whitman's long term baseball goal is clear. And, should his breakout spring sustain itself into a big-time summer, the future may come calling even quicker for this hoopster turned hitter.
"I'm definitely going [to school [somewhere] and the plan has always been to try to get drafted as high as possible and see where that can take me," Whitman says. "I'll never turn down an opportunity, we'll see."