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Guest columnist A.J. Ellis: Bench role tough to adapt to, but it's still important

Allan Henry/USA TODAY Sports

At 1:30 p.m. prior to each night game, Los Angeles Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach posts the starting lineup on the wall next to the clubhouse entrance. As we file in, our heads instinctively turn to the right to see if we are playing that day and where we are hitting in the batting order.

Most players have a good idea in advance whether they'll be in the lineup based on a conversation with manager Don Mattingly the day before, or in some cases depending on if a right-handed or left-handed pitcher is starting for the opposing team. As professional athletes, we should be held accountable to be prepared to start each day. But knowing our playing schedule ahead of time does benefit us as individuals and as a team.

From 2012 to 2014, I was the Dodgers' starting catcher. Including our playoff games from the past two seasons, I started 340 games behind the plate. I became accustomed to the routine of playing each day and doing all the necessary things to prepare to catch a major league baseball game. For a 7 p.m. game, I would usually arrive by 1:15. Scouting reports, early batting practice and work in both the training and weight rooms all became a part of my daily routine to stay healthy and on the field. It was a grind to get myself mentally and physically ready each day, and I loved every second of it.

During the 2014 MLB winter meetings, the Dodgers made a flurry of moves that dramatically overhauled our club. Dependable and durable veteran Dan Haren and up-and-coming All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon were traded to the Miami Marlins in return for a package of players that included do-it-all utility man Kike Hernandez and relief pitcher Chris Hatcher. Also coming to the Dodgers was a top pitching prospect named Andrew Heaney, whose stint was brief, but memorable. He was flipped down the I-5 freeway to the Los Angeles Angels for Howie Kendrick a few hours later.

Former MVP and World Series-winning shortstop Jimmy Rollins was also acquired to replace Hanley Ramirez and solidify our middle infield, and the face-lift was completed with a move that sent longtime Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp to the division-rival Padres. In return, we saved some money and received a young catcher in Yasmani Grandal.

The arrival of Yasmani also meant a transition for me as the starting catcher for the only organization I had ever known. Yas proved early and often that he not only possessed the impact switch-hitting bat we needed, but also the newly measured defensive skill of stealing strikes with his receiving behind the plate.

When Yas took over my spot as the Dodgers' starting catcher, I knew it was time for me to figure out how to prepare to play in a limited role, and also how I could help impact our win/loss record in games I didn't play. Fortunately, I've learned from teammates who transitioned brilliantly into similar roles.

One of my all-time favorite teammates was an everyday starting infielder for the first 12 years of his career. He began his last season in a platoon, and as the season progressed he found even fewer starts than that. When I saw him that season, he told me how hard it was to transition from being an everyday player to playing off the bench, and how much more respect he gained for the ballplayers who have made a career of it. Players like Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr. provided good examples of what it takes to be on alert to play anywhere on a ball field at any time -- while sometimes going days between appearances. While they might not have been starters, what those three men did behind the scenes helped take us to within two wins of the World Series in 2013, the closest the franchise had been in 25 years.

Their constant presence, preparation and commitment to winning, regardless of individual achievement, inspired all of us. Skip reminded us to play for each other and not ourselves. We all drew inspiration from watching Punto tape himself together before each game without whispering a word of the toll injuries had taken on his body over the years. On bus rides and flights, J-Hair would grab the mike and keep us laughing and loose.

Critically, he always made sure to end every conversation encouraging guys to look forward and not back. I don't know if these guys learned how to lead based on their experience playing for world championship teams or if their teams won championships because of their leadership, but I don't think it's a coincidence that three of the best teammates I've ever had all have rings.

Sometimes it's hard to be in a good mood when you're not getting at-bats. It's not that anyone wants to be a bad teammate; it's just that we all love the game so much, and we're all really competitive and want to play. The frustration of sitting on the bench can turn good people into bad teammates. But not those three guys. They never pouted. They stayed focused on the games and encouraged those who were playing ahead of them, rather than making snide comments behind their backs.

Playing off the bench requires the humility to become essentially a cheerleader. Even when their roles were reduced to cheerleading, they took it seriously and hollered from the top step of the dugout, checking their egos at the door. They would know exactly what you were working on with your swing and what to watch during your at-bats. Skip was a master at looking for ways an opposing starter was tipping his pitches, and he helped all of us with that intel. All three would be right there to meet you as you re-entered the dugout after a positive plate appearance, or follow you down the tunnel and save you from redecorating the locker room during an 0-for-20 skid.

This stuff may sound small, but it has measurable impact on the standings. It's hard for teams to advance deep into October when they don't communicate. Last season we saw two teams in the World Series that excelled at communication -- and selflessness. It seems like the teams that succeed are the ones that have players with the humility to strike out and walk into the dugout and pass along information about a guy's slider or where the umpire is expanding the strike zone, as opposed to going into a "woe is me" shell. When Punto would enter the game as part of a double-switch, he would beeline to me to ask questions like: "What are the signs with a runner on second base?" Or, "are you pitching Posey inside? Do I need to play him to pull?" That's what pros do.

That's also what leaders do. From experience, I know how mentally and physically stressful it can be to play every day. The baseball season is long, and there are some days when your energy is down and your body just isn't moving the way it could. I would lean on the energy of my teammates in those moments. When I felt myself dragging, I would look at the edge guys like Skip and Nick would provide off the bench for inspiration. That provided me the fuel I needed to push through.

They provided the blueprint for the kind of teammate I want to be now, the guy who holds teammates accountable, but also encourages, supports and tries to figure out ways to help make them better. I want to help Yas the same way my backup, Matt Treanor, helped me in 2012. Matt had the ability to always make me feel like he had my back and was genuinely invested in my success as a catcher. Because we are all intense competitors, sometimes we can find ourselves competing unhealthily against our own teammates instead of pulling together and pushing forward toward team goals. I want Yas to do well, because if he does well, it puts us in a better position to win.

I'm also finding new ways to help the pitching staff as best as I can. Limited playing time can also mean maximized interaction. Now that I'm the backup, I can spend more time digging into scouting reports and trying to look for the small, hidden tendencies that can produce tangible advantages. I also have the time to catch our starters' bullpen sessions between starts. It's much easier to communicate some of the stuff I've noticed in these low-stress settings.

But even though my role has shifted to bench player, I know I still must be prepared to play. Baseball is a game that will expose the unprepared, and I know the minute I slack off in my hitting or defensive work, a moment will arrive when I'm needed to perform.

The old cliché is "baseball is a game of adjustments." It's also a game of transitions. All of us as players have an expiration date. But if I can follow the example set by a couple little fellas like Schu and Nick and Jerry, I can help a group of men earn the same undeniable title they have: world champion.

What follows is Buster Olney's notes and links portion of the column:


Red Sox scoop up Dombrowski

Years from now, we'll know if Boston's hiring of David Dombrowski as the president of baseball operations turned out well, and whether it was the right move at the right time. But every time there is a significant change like this, there is an immediate opportunity to quickly correct decisions made by the outgoing leadership that went badly.

If Ben Cherington were still the team's general manager, he would need to follow through with decisions he recommended and executed. He would have a professional obligation to try to make it work with Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, to find a position for Ramirez, to earnestly find a way to help Sandoval improve his conditioning and get back to being a representative third baseman. Cherington would have needed to wait longer to see if Rusney Castillo was worth the big dollars the Red Sox spent on him.