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.
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“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.”