Tag Archives: Baseball

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Arizona Dreaming

Drew Ellis is in sunny Scottsdale right now, on a journey to make a major league baseball team.

There are no guarantees. He’s not asking for any.screen-shot-2018-04-04-at-2-39-17-am

By Steve Kaufman | Photos by Tony Bennett

In February, Drew Ellis of Jeffersonville,

Indiana, got on a plane to Arizona, along with

thousands of other people escaping winter snows.

It was the warmer weather and sunshine

drawing him there. But he wasn’t going to sit

around a resort pool. He was going there to

work. He has a job in Scottsdale, which started

in February, with April not far behind.

For the next couple of months, Ellis would

be running and exercising, swinging a bat and

scooping up infield grounders, throwing and

catching. What he really hoped to catch was

someone’s attention.

Ellis works for baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks,

who had their best season last year since the team

of Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Luis Gonzalez

won the 2001 major league championship. The

Diamondbacks won 93 games in 2017, third-best

in the entire National League, before succumbing

to their division rival Los Angeles Dodgers in the

post-season.

Ellis wasn’t in Phoenix while all this was going

on. He was in Hillsboro, Oregon, playing for the

Hillsboro Hops of the Northwest League, Arizona’s

affiliate in what is called Short Season A. Only the

Rookie League is a lower designation.

Hillsboro did the parent club one better, winning

its league pennant, beating out the Eugene (Ore.)

Emeralds, a Chicago Cubs affiliate; the Boise

(Idaho) Hawks, a Colorado Rockies affiliate; and

the Salem-Keizer (Ore.) Volcanoes, a San Francisco

Giants affiliate, in the league’s South Division.

Ellis was the Hops’ starting third baseman once

he got to Hillsboro, hitting what for him was a

disappointing .227, but getting eight home runs

and driving in 23 runs in his 41 games.

“I played really well for the first 30 or so games,

then struggled a bit,” he said. “My power numbers

were good, but my average wasn’t where I wanted

it to be. Probably good to have those struggles

early in my career, though, so I know what it takes

to overcome them, how to work out of them.”

And now it’s on to spring training camp.

Hillsboro is far from Phoenix, and not just on a

line drawn on a map. It’s the lowest rung on a very

high ladder going up through four more minor

league levels in the Diamondback organization,

all the way to Reno, Nevada, the team’s Triple A

affiliate in the Pacific Coast League.

The highest rung on the ladder, of course, is

the ultimate goal – an Arizona uniform. A seat in

the D-backs’ dugout. Hearing your name called:

“Batting fifth and playing third base, Drew Ellis!”

But first…

For this summer, the Jeffersonville youngster

has set his sights on an assignment to the Visalia

Rawhide of the Advanced A California League.

It would be a promotion, all part of the climb.

It’s a slog. And a numbers game. Most of the

ballplayers in the Short Season League will likely

never get to the majors. Ellis knows that.

His short season was shorter than most. He

wasn’t drafted until June, in the second round

of Major League Baseball’s 2017 draft, the 44th

overall pick. That spring, he had been a key cog in

the University of Louisville’s march to the College

World Series. So, he’s now 22, a mere baby in most

professions but a late starter in professional sports.

On the other hand, a good thing about playing

sports is that your performance is out there on

the field. If you’re good, you’re good.

Ellis was good at the University of Louisville.

He hit .367 with 20 home runs and earned All-

American honors on the team that won 53 of 65

games, all the way to Omaha, beating Texas A&M

before back-to-back losses to Florida and TCU

cancelled the dream.screen-shot-2018-04-04-at-2-40-37-am

“It was a super-special year,” he recalled. “The

most fun I’ve had playing baseball – not just

because we were winning, but because of the

way we were winning.”

He also said “the atmosphere on campus was

great. One reason I chose Louisville was because

of the fan support. They showed up even when

it was cold out.”

It was a close team, too, and Ellis spent much

of the off-season working out at the UofL athletic

facilities with ex-teammates like Brendan McKay,

Colby Fitch and Devin Hairston, three of several

Cardinals who were also drafted by big-league

teams.

McKay was a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay

Rays. He spent the season in Wappinger Falls, N.Y.,

with the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New

York-Pennsylvania League. A versatile athlete

who played first base and pitched in college, he

hit .232 and won his only pitching decision.

Shortstop Hairston was drafted in the fourth

round and spent 2017 in Appleton, Wisconsin,

with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, a Milwaukee

Brewers property in the Class A Midwest League.

He hit .210 and made 10 errors in 44 games.

Fitch, the Cards’ catcher, was drafted in the 13th

round by the Philadelphia Phillies. He split the

summer between the Lakewood (N.J.) Blue Claws

of the South Atlantic League and Williamsport

(Pa.) Crosscutters of the New York-Pennsylvania

League. Fitch hit only .217 at Lakewood, but .350

in Williamsport.

The point is, it’s a long haul for almost everybody,

even the best college players. But it’s all part of

the dream, a dream so many young athletes have

growing up.

Ellis recalled first dreaming the dream at

Jeffersonville High School, when he saw other

local players getting scouted by pro teams. “I

remember thinking, ‘I’m as good as these guys,

but I’m not getting any attention.’ So I changed

my thinking, and started working my butt off.”

He had been a shortstop in high school, but

Louisville coach Dan McDonnell moved him to

third in college because the Cardinals already had

slick-fielding Hairston. That makes Ellis’ prospects

on the Diamondbacks somewhat problematic.

They already have a third baseman. Jake Lamb

hit 30 home runs and drove in 105 runs last year.

And he’s only 26.

A scouting report on Ellis said defense is his

biggest question mark – “lack of range” – and that

maybe first base is a better option. But the D-backs

also have a first baseman. Paul Goldschmidt hit

.297 last year, with 36 home runs and 120 RBIs. He

was third in the National League’s Most Valuable

Player voting.

Still, Ellis knows major league rosters are fluid.

Free agency makes everything unpredictable.

Who knows where Lamb or Goldschmidt will

be in two years?

More important, Ellis knows he can only worry

about Ellis. The rest will follow. “They haven’t

talked to me much yet about where I’ll be,” he

said. “Wherever I play, my expectation is to play

as well as I can play. They’ll put me where they put

me. I’ve just got to do what I’ve always done, by

preparing the way I prepare. Do the little things I

need to do, to make sure I’m on top of my game.”

There’s a level-headedness there about an

outcome Ellis can’t control except to prepare for

the best so he can expect the best. Partly, that’s

a work ethic first drilled into him by his high

school coach, Derek Ellis, who also happens to

be his father.

And partly, it’s the result of a faith he acquired

while in high school, when he was baptized by

his friend, “one of best decisions of my life, to

follow Jesus.”

He said he struggled a little bit as a high school

freshman, as so many freshmen do, not knowing

which crowd to follow. But since his baptism, he

said, “I know who my Lord and Savior is. And

life is easier when you have someone to rely on.

When times are hard or going well, through ups

and downs and struggles, it’s been good for me

to rely on my faith to get through those.”

He said he’s seen teammates make some choices

he wouldn’t have made, “not necessarily because

they’re bad people but because they haven’t had

a faith to help them out.”

There will be ups and downs in Ellis’ baseball

career, just because there are ups and downs in

that life for everybody. He seems well-equipped

to handle both.

And it’s not just because he can hit the fastball.

mann-field-best-little-league-field-2

Play Ball?

Travel tournaments are increasingly dominating

youth baseball. It provides great opportunities to

play a lot of games around the country. But is it

good for the kids themselves?

Youth baseball.

For more than a century, it was the summer

game, a sunshine outlet for American kids. Their

national pastime.

Whether it was neighborhood pickup games

in the park or a more organized trip through

one of the local Little League programs, it was

a fun leisure-time sport for teens and pre-teens

to look forward to once school was out. It was as

informal, unstructured and relaxed as their long

summer days were.

That is changing. And not everyone believes

the change is a good one.

But some do, too.

Competition, which runs through every channel

of our lives, leads to elite selection – the best

movies, biggest-selling songs, winning politicians,

highest batting averages, most popular kids.

So, it was inevitable that it would creep into

summer baseball, as well. Someone had to pitch;

someone had to start while someone else sat the

bench; someone had to play shortstop while

someone else was shunted off to right field. And,

ultimately, all-star teams were formed that traveled

around the town or to other towns playing other

all-star teams.

“Travel” became the key definer. It separated

the best of the best from the old come-one-comeall

afternoon game in the neighborhood park.

Today, the concept of travel baseball has

exploded, from traveling around the immediate

area to traveling around the country. There are

tournaments nearly every weekend, in which

teams might play six games in the space of three

days. That’s lots of baseball against high-level

competition. In a country where the feeling is

baseball is slipping as a youth activity – to football,

to basketball, to soccer, to video games – travel

ball juices up the interest level by the travel,

competition and opportunities it offers.

But Adam Kleinert wonders if it’s having exactly

the opposite effect. Kleinert, a graphic designer

who owns Hatch Design in Henryville, is the

father of two sons and two daughters; baseball

coordinator at the local youth park; and baseball

coach at Henryville Junior High School. He sees

travel baseball potentially diminishing interest in

youth baseball because it’s causing the summer

rec leagues to disappear.

“Because of the entry fees and travel demands,

travel ball has become something for the affluent

families and the single-child families,” said

Kleinert, who turned down travel ball for his

older son, Eli (now 13), partly because he felt it

wasn’t fair to his three other children. “A lot of

kids, left off of travel teams and with no other

opportunities to play organized baseball in the

summer, are turning to other sports.”

Kleinert said a friend pays around $10,000 for

his son’s travel ball activity. That includes the entry

fees, of course, but also the private lessons and

expensive equipment – because, said Kleinert,

parents insist on providing only the very best bats

and gloves for their sons. (He notes, wryly, that

in the Dominican Republic kids play the game

using hand-me-downs and makeshift equipment.)

And for what? For those who play, the immediate

prize for winning one of the tournaments is a

trophy.

The trophy is a nice prize, too, for those who

run the teams – mainly because it allows them

to recruit other good players, not unlike the way

Alabama brings the best high school football

players to Tuscaloosa. That recruiting is profitable

in travel baseball because of the money the

organizers make on the membership fees they

charge – as much as $1,500 to $2,000 per player’s

family. If they have several teams in a variety of

age groups, that loose change becomes a sizable

profit for them.

The prize for the kids (and perhaps even more

so for their parents) is a chance to perform in front

of the college coaches and professional scouts

who come out to the tournaments and sit in the

stands. That means scholarships, pro contracts

major league salaries, free-agent signing bonuses,

endorsements, shoe deals, glove deals, book deals.

Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels earns

more than $34 million a year – and that’s just his

salary. Little wonder parents want their kids to

impress the scouts and coaches.

One of those college coaches whose attention

is sought by travel players and their parents is

Larry Owens, baseball coach of the Bellarmine

University Knights. So, he must love the idea of

these tournaments, in which he’s able to see and

assess promising athletes from all over the country.

Not so much.

“Yes, it gives kids the opportunity to play a

lot of baseball and to travel around the country,

and that’s a good thing,” Owens said. “But here’s

my gripe. When these kids show up here (at

Bellarmine), we’re having to teach them things

we shouldn’t be having to teach: how to play the

game! It’s little things they should know by the

time they get here: cutoffs, relays, rundowns,

fundamentals that are not getting taught at the

youth level because they don’t have time to do it.”

Why not?

Because, Owens said, “the tournaments are

set up only to play games – as many as they can

pack into a three-or-four-day weekend. So, kids

just play games, they don’t practice, they don’t

learn, they don’t develop.”

Amazingly, he said, “When I was coaching in

the minor leagues (he was a pitching coach in

the Chicago White Sox organization), those kids

didn’t know the fine points of the game, either.”

And that’s just for the kids who get that far.

Many more have been left on the side of the

road because they were forced to pitch too many

innings in these tournaments, or to throw too

hard, and they blew out their arms.

“In too many cases, these coaches just want to

win, so they’ll pitch their best kid over and over,”

Owens said, “unless the tournament has limits

on how many innings a kid can pitch. And the kid

wants to open it up and throw hard because he

thinks that’s what the scouts in the stands want

to see. It’s too much for young arms.”

Nor is the problem just about preserving arms.

It’s also growing up and maturing off the diamond.

Ben Reel, the baseball coach at Indiana

University Southeast, would like to see youth

sports be more of a training ground for life,

“teaching you all the different facet sports can

teach – patience, discipline, commitment, hard

work, everyday habits.

“My objection to travel ball is its priorities,”

said the successful coach of IUS’s championship

program. “Travel baseball is built around playing

the game, not around learning the game. Kids

don’t want to practice, or prepare, or get coached.

“They just want to go hit in the cage and start

the game. It’s ‘The more games we play, the better

we’re gonna get – right?’ But the game itself should

only be the culmination of all that preparation.”

What disappoints Reel is that travel can be

positive in providing all the opportunities to

play and develop. “With travel ball, kids just get

the chance to play more – maybe as much as 150

games a year.”

But they don’t practice. “Practice is more than

just taking three rounds in the cage before the

game, or a half-hour of infield,” said Reel. “Practice

is understanding baseball and how it works.

Baseball is a thinking man’s sport – strategies,

nuances, situational approaches. On every pitch,

there are so many things happening, so many

different ways to handle whatever happens next.

And so many rules kids have to be aware of.”

In travel ball, he said, “it’s ‘told’ versus ‘taught.’

I often find myself spending a lot of time teaching

my players the rules. And they’re in college! The

game’s a lot more than having a good swing.”

It’s a theme that resonates throughout the

coaching fraternity, at all levels. Ricky Romans,

coach at Charlestown High School, agreed that

“travel baseball had to be more about learning,

instruction and teaching.

“Kids get so wrapped up about going out to

play in tournaments, and win tournaments,” he

said, “that they’re missing the ultimate objective:

how to play the game.”

Romans said he can see one benefit of travel

ball: playing against better competition. “But

when the parents see it as a better opportunity

to put their sons on this specific team, with its

specific reputation, to improve the chance of a

college scholarship, that’s where I get frustrated.”

He reasserts the complaint that the kids don’t

get proper preparation. “They can go to all these

batting instructors and pitching gurus, but when

they get on the field, do they know how to play

the game? Do they know what to do when the

ball’s put in play?

“It’s frustrating when a kid gets to us and he

doesn’t even know how to hold a ball!”

So, will it change? Or is travel ball slowly

eliminating the summertime Little League

programs, American Legion ball and pickup

games among friends?

Adam Kleinert offers a refreshing possibility.

Because participation in travel ball often seems

to be something the parents want rather than the

players, Kleinert wonders whether that’s a cyclical

thing that will take a 180-degree turn in the future.

“Today’s kids give up their summers for travel

ball, at least partly because their fathers are

pushing them,” he said. “So, I wonder if these

kids, when they grow up and become fathers,

will say, on behalf of their sons, ‘Let him relax

and do what he chooses. Let him go to the park

and play ball with his friends if he wants. It’s

summertime!’ ”


“ it’s ‘told’ versus

‘taught.’ I often find

myself spending

a lot of time teaching

my players the rules.

And they’re in college!

The game’s a lot more

than having a

good swing.”

BEN REEL

HEAD Baseball coach

Indiana University Southeast

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Louisville Hosts Red-White Baseball Scrimmage

Photos by Christian Watson

Feb. 9

The University of Louisville baseball team opened its final

weekend of preseason work with a Red-White scrimmage

Feb. at Jim Patterson Stadium. Gates opened at 1 p.m. for

batting practice and admission was free for the scrimmage.

Louisville opened the 2018 season on Feb. 16 at against

Richmond in the first of three games at the Charleston Crab

House Challenge in Charleston, South Carolina. The Cardinals

also played The Citadel on Feb. 17 and George Mason on

Feb. 18. The 2018 home-opener at Jim Patterson Stadium

occurred Feb. 21 against Eastern Kentucky.

Fans can follow Louisville baseball on Twitter (@

UofLBaseball) and on Facebook (@ulbaseball).