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.
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
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
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!”
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.
“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
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
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
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
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
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.