So many of us at some point in our lives have someone that we look up to. A musician, athlete, actor, writer, scientist or activist. It’s not that often that one is able to meet and form a relationship with that person, much less watch them flourish in a career that you could be proud of. So often our “heroes” have flaws, so it’s a testament to someone’s character when they make it through a career without any bad press or skeletons found in old closets.
I’m lucky enough to have that person in Mark Ellis.
He’s an unknown to most anyone who isn’t a baseball fan, and still then he’s probably not known to everyone. He’s never been a superstar or won any major awards (more on that later) but he shows up to work every day, plays hard, plays right and quietly gets the job done. You won’t be able to Google any articles on how he hit his wife, or got a DUI, or even just mistreated a fan. That’s not him. He leads by example, not by voice. He doesn’t showboat when he succeeds or throw a fit when he fails. He just plays the game.
In the late summer of 2001, my friend Tina and I made the trip from the Bay Area to Sacramento to watch the River Cats play baseball, to see her favorite player. I took notice of the guy playing shortstop. He was as solid as I had seen, and all his plays seemed effortless. I don’t know what drew me to pay such close attention – I know that so often girls/women notice the cute player and become a fan – that wasn’t it with Mark at all. He just seemed to play the game right.
The following spring, as we did at least once a season, we made the drive down the 5 to Anaheim to watch the A’s play the Angels (still the Anaheim Angels, of Anaheim). Who made his first major league start that weekend? Mark Ellis. That season was quite magical for the A’s, as they won 20 consecutive games, setting an American League record. They made the playoffs, and Mark’s 3 run homerun in game 5 brought the A’s within one run of winning the series.
I had season tickets to the A’s from the 2002 season through the 2005 season when I moved to Colorado. Mark missed the entire 2004 season because he tore his labrum and needed surgery and extensive rehab. I was worried that he would be replaced, despite the fact his defense was as solid as it came. I was also worried that he wouldn’t recover to be as strong as he was pre-injury. But he did, and he wasn’t replaced. He came back just as strong, and his defense was just as solid as ever.
How solid? Well, in 2006 he broke the previous single season fielding percentage for a second baseman with a .99685 fielding percentage. Yet he didn’t win a Gold Glove (the award given to the best fielder at each position at the end of each season. Notoriously given to good fielders who also HIT well, which has nothing to do with fielding, but I digress). In fact, despite the fact that he retired with the 5th highest fielding percentage for a second baseman to EVER play the game, he never won a Gold Glove. The fact that I didn’t hunt down the voters personally after each season is a testament to my self-restraint.
In 2011, I was set to make my first trip back to Oakland since 2006. I was SO excited because I hadn’t seen Mark play in person except for a trip to Kansas City in 2010. My daughter and I were at the Rockies game the day before I flew out and I received a text from my best friend’s sister telling me that Mark had just been traded…. to Colorado. I didn’t know how to react. 1. He was going to be HERE! Playing for our local team! I could watch him play every day again! 2. I was leaving in less than 24 hours to go to Oakland to watch him play. Well, yes, I was going to watch the whole team play and to see friends, but he was my favorite player and I couldn’t wait to see him play again in person. I got over it quick and enjoyed my trip, and commiserating with my A’s fan friends who were so upset he was traded. He had been with the A’s for 9 years, which is some sort of record considering how Billy Beane wheels and deals players. And then I returned home and went to as many games as I could for the rest of that season.
He only was in Colorado for half of a season. The next year he signed with the Dodgers, where he stayed for 2 seasons. He played for St. Louis, but in a greatly reduced role, last season.
Last night he announced his retirement.
As a sports fan, players come and go. But Mark was more than a player. He was a true role model. He was good to me, and more importantly good to my daughter. He has three kids of his own, now, too, so we’ve both grown up over the last 12 years. From the time he came to Colorado, when Violet was almost 3, he has always made the time to come give her a hug and for us to catch up with each other. I was grateful to be able to see him play more (in person) in the last 4 seasons of his career than I was for the 4 seasons before that. My daughter is so funny, we have friends we see on a regular basis that she is terribly shy around, yet when she finds out we’re going to a game to see Mark, all she wants is a hug from him, and chats his ear off. And he listens. Because he’s that kind of guy.
I won’t lie, I had a good long cry when I heard that he decided to retire. A good, long, ugly cry. I mean, I knew it was going to happen sooner rather than later, but you have to understand, he’s more than a baseball player to me. He’s a role model. A good guy. A hard worker. A quiet leader. A testament to the way the game should be played. A friend.
I have a million memories that would take far too long to put into words, and I’m already at 1100 words on this post. I won’t forget Pyramid, Seattle, my birthday, the waves, the grand slam, the walk off, the cycle, KC, the trade, the hugs, and the end. He’s the kind of guy that’s so humble and grounded that he probably doesn’t think he did anything special, he just worked hard and did his job the way it was supposed to be done. For those of us who watch sports regularly, we know that he’s the exception to the rule. In the world of showboats and steroids, big contracts and big heads, he’s the one that played for love of the game.
Thanks, Mark. It was a pleasure every time I got to watch you play, and I’ll always be grateful to how you treated me, but more importantly my daughter. I wish you happiness with your family and watching your kids grow and learn from the best.