“I have to keep him playing, because if he starts managing he’ll be better than me,” Garner said.
The Dodgers have one of those kinds of players in their clubhouse, as well, and it might not be a coincidence that Ausmus was, quite possibly, his most important mentor. A.J. Ellis might not have gotten this major league opportunity if Ausmus hadn’t been hit with a back injury when he was a backup catcher for the Dodgers in 2009 and 2010. He might not be the player he is today if he hadn’t spent all those games sitting next to Ausmus on the Dodgers’ bench.
Ellis was the backup to Russell Martin, playing about once a week. Ausmus was on the disabled list for much of 2010.
“I was fortunate to catch in the major leagues before I met Brad, but I wasn’t a major league catcher until after I got to spend two years with Brad,” Ellis said. “He’s just the ultimate pro.”
Ausmus didn’t have to wait long before entering Phase 2 of his baseball career. The Detroit Tigers, who arrive at Dodger Stadium for a two-game series Tuesday, hired him to replace Jim Leyland as their 37th manager last November.
These days, catchers with a reputation for having analytic minds don’t have to wait long. Mike Scioscia and Bruce Bochy seem to have opened up a pipeline for the likes of Ausmus and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mike Matheny. The game’s most innovative manager, Joe Maddon, also was a catcher in the minor leagues. Catchers are the only players on a roster who have to pay close attention to all three phases of the game: pitching, hitting and fielding. So it's no coincidence they're starting to crowd the managerial ranks.
Like Ausmus, Ellis could be a future manager. As he was nearing 30 and still stuck in the minor leagues, Ellis used to think about that career path a lot. Since he took over as the Dodgers’ starting catcher two years ago and has begun to earn a comfortable living, it has faded somewhat, but the notion is still there, Ellis said.
“I love the mental side of the game, the strategic part of the game,” Ellis said. “I love having conversations after the game, just learning from Don Mattingly and Tim Wallach and Rick Honeycutt and just trying to devour as much about this great game of baseball as I can.”
Because Ellis didn’t touch the major leagues until he was 27, he won’t have the major league staying power of Ausmus, who played parts of 19 seasons. Ellis turns 33 on Wednesday. They are otherwise similar players, guys who prepare well and embrace their primary job of helping shepherd a pitching staff through a game, and can articulate the game for the media.
“I love baseball and I think it’s always going to be a part of me and my family’s lives,” Ellis said. “I’m pretty confident and hope there’s an opportunity for me when my career’s over to stay involved.”
Seems like there will be.