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A.J. Ellis: Life at the trade deadline

8/20/2012
Ellis knew that pretty much any Dodger (including him) could be moved at the deadline. ESPN.com Illustration

Buster Olney is on vacation this week, so he enlisted a group of players to write the lead of his column. Leading off the week is catcher A.J. Ellis from the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ballplayers like to pretend we are unaffected by the media and their reporting, and few of us would admit to religiously checking websites like MLBTradeRumors and Twitter feeds looking for rumors, but we do. Thanks to the ability to obtain up-to-the-minute speculation via our smartphones, gossip flows throughout the clubhouse in July leading to the trade deadline. We are control freaks. We like to know what's going on, what possible moves will be made and how it will affect our team.

For us in Los Angeles, it wasn't a matter of if, but when and who. While the team was forced to be creative and financially flexible in the past, it was no secret that the Dodgers, near the top of the standings and under new ownership, were looking to make moves and go after the best players available. The team already had superstar talent Matt Kemp and the consistent gap-to-gap swing of Andre Ethier, but we needed another bat in our lineup to complement our All-Star outfielders.

On the morning of July 25, I woke up at our hotel in St. Louis and had a pair of new teammates; Hanley Ramirez, a three-time All-Star and former batting champ, and Randy Choate, a left-handed specialist who has dominated left-handed hitters for years, were now Dodgers. Here was our first move, and we get a middle-of-the-order bat and added bullpen depth to strengthen our roster. More important, this let the rest of baseball know that the Dodgers' ownership meant business. Anything was possible.

Immediately, text messages and phone calls flowed between teammates. Clayton Kershaw texted me with only the word "Hanley," followed by five exclamation points. Mark Ellis called me to break down what it meant and if we thought Hanley would stay at third or move back to his natural position of shortstop. The initial excitement of the trade and the fulfilled promise from our new ownership group sent energy throughout our team.

Even after we reloaded with Hanley and Choate, the rumor mill continued to swirl. The team returned home after a 7-3 trip and took the field July 30 with less than 24 hours to go before the trade deadline. That night, relief pitcher Josh Lindblom entered the game in the sixth and had a quick inning. He was scheduled to head back out for a second inning of work until the home dugout got a firsthand look at how the trade machine works.

Clubhouse manager Mitch Poole quickly paced across the dugout and tapped manager Don Mattingly on the shoulder, summoning him to the tunnel below our dugout. Mattingly emerged and immediately went to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who hurried to the bullpen phone to have another pitcher warm up. On the bench, we all knew this could mean only one thing: Josh had been traded. The game ended and we entered the clubhouse to learn about the trade, but it wasn't the one we were anticipating. The Dodgers had acquired reliever Brandon League from the Seattle Mariners for a couple of minor leaguers at the lower levels. But what about Josh -- was his removal a false alarm or was his trade still imminent?

I found out when I woke up the next morning. This time it was the one we had come to expect from all the speculation. Lindblom and minor league pitcher Ethan Martin were headed to the Philadelphia Phillies for outfielder and leadoff hitter Shane Victorino. Victorino had been a thorn in our side during our playoff defeats in the 2008 and '09 NLCS. His fearless defense, relentless baserunning and clutch hitting -- along with his confident attitude -- made Victorino the kind of player you hated to play against but secretly wanted on your team.

We gained a new spark and leader in Shane. A battle-tested veteran who has played year in and year out in the biggest games on the biggest stages, his addition changed our team dynamic from the outset. Shane stepped in the first day and added a strong voice to keep the team moving in the right direction and remind us that winning that day's game was all that mattered. The trade was another sign from our front office and ownership that they had our backs and that they want to win right now. In less than a week, ownership had fulfilled its promise to upgrade the roster and give us the pieces to contend for a championship, but at what cost?

To get something, you have to give up something, and for us, Nathan Eovaldi (traded for Ramirez and Choate) and Lindblom were the high costs to supplement our roster. We were able to catch up with Nate last week when we visited Miami, and it was odd, to say the least. Nate told us about his transition and the whirlwind of being traded across the country, from being met at the airport by a reality-show camera crew to walking into a clubhouse where he didn't know a single teammate. Fortunately for Nate, a player who had worn only Dodger blue, the fraternity of ballplayers is strong enough to help players, especially the younger ones, make the transition as he experienced the fears and anxiety of facing the unknown.

It was great to hear how Marlins veterans like Mark Buehrle, John Buck and Josh Johnson welcomed him to the Marlins and helped acclimate him to Miami.

As great as it was to gain Victorino, losing Josh, our most consistent reliever who filled multiple roles and delivered in them all, was tough. Losing him as a pitcher was a challenge to replace, but losing Josh the person was a kick in the gut. No player was more encouraging and cared more about us as individuals off the field than Josh did. This would be a huge loss for us and a huge gain for Philly.

The more you go through this time of year, the more used to it you get as a player. But for the players traded, the overnight changes to your life are immediate. The stress it can cause you and your loved ones is dramatic and can be a struggle -- and that's coming from a player who has never been through it. Fans see players moving across the bottom line of their television screen, but in reality we are packing up immediately and moving 3,000 miles across country, and doing it on a moment's notice while leaving our families behind to clean up the pieces.

That's where the community and common life experiences of this crazy baseball life step up. It is not up to the traded player to instantly become part of the team, but for the team receiving the player to make its new teammates and families feel comfortable and welcome in their new environment. The way the Marlins vets did for Nate. The way Juan Pierre and Kyle Kendrick did for Josh in Philadelphia. The way we've tried to do with all our new Dodgers. Even with the support, I've been told it's a tough transition. But at least with our iPhones and BlackBerrys constantly refreshing Twitter, it's not always a complete shock.

Elsewhere

Note: The news and notes you see below come from Buster.

It's the prerogative of the Astros' new regime to hire the manager they want, of course, and the full expectation since Jim Crane bought the franchise was that the team would replace Brad Mills sometime this year.

But the timing and manner in which Mills and some of his coaches were fired, in a Saturday night massacre, generated a lot of disgust in the sport.

The Houston Astros began this year with arguably the worst team in the majors, and over the course of the summer, the front office traded almost all of the veteran players with the plan of restocking the farm system.

But in doing this, what has been created is one of the worst teams in the history of major league baseball. The Astros have gone 17-60 since the middle of May. Since June 27 -- about the time the player flea market started -- they are 7-40. In those 47 games, they have been outscored by a combined 128 runs, or 2.7 runs per game. To put that into perspective, the '62 Mets lost by an average of two runs per game. "They turned a team that had a lot of Triple-A players," said one longtime evaluator, "into a Double-A team trying to compete at the major league level."

Staff changes were inevitable, as Mills and his coaches knew. But at 5 p.m. Saturday, before Houston's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, none of them had any idea that firings were imminent. And given the situation, there were a number of different ways that Mills and any unwanted coaches could have been fired, including:

1) Mills could've been told Sunday morning, before the final game of the homestand, that he was being let go.

2) The Astros could have theoretically waited until the end of the season because, after all, nothing is really going to change for Houston between now and then. The Astros are destined to be terrible for a while.

3) The front office could have met with Mills and informed him that a change was imminent and discussed a plan for the turnover. Mills is a very well-respected and respectful baseball person who has been a good soldier through the first stages of this rebuilding job, and he would have undoubtedly served as long as asked, whether it be to the final week of the season or to next week. Chicago Cubs GM Jim Hendry did this last year: He was told he was being fired but agreed to stay on a little longer for the sake of club business.

Instead, Mills' Saturday played out this way: The Astros were blown out again, 12-4, and almost immediately after the game, he, first base coach Bobby Meacham and hitting coach Mike Barnett were fired.

The way it was done suggested a reactionary decision -- right after a game, with no advance warning, in the middle of a series -- as if that latest blowout loss was just too much for the new regime to take, as if Mills was the reason the Astros have been so awful. In fact, it's the decision of the new regime to completely strip down the roster, which has turned Houston from a bad team into a historic embarrassment.

Crane reinforced the implication that Mills had contributed to the disastrous play with his statement Sunday.

"We need fans in the building, and we want to win more ballgames," Crane said following Houston's fourth consecutive loss. "We think this is a process that will help us win more ballgames. The team was really struggling, and the demeanor in the clubhouse wasn't what you want it to be. If there's a message to the fans, it's that we're going to make good decisions and we want to win."

It's Crane's team. He paid a lot of money for it, and he can hire and fire whom he wants. But firing Mills and the coaches the way Houston did was completely and unnecessarily disrespectful. Mills was not any more responsible for the decrepit state of the franchise than ownership is. And Mills is even less responsible for what a shockingly bad team the Astros have become in the last two months.

From Elias Sports Bureau

* What an incredible and important win for the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday.

According to Elias, the 19 innings played Sunday are the most innings in a game in the 2,306-game history of the Pirates-Cardinals rivalry, which dates to 1892. It's also the longest game by innings this season for any team. And 6 hours, 7 minutes is tied for the longest game by time this season.

Longest games since 2000 (by innings):

22: April 17, 2008 -- COL 2, SD 1

20: April 17, 2010 -- NYM 2, STL 1

20: April 27, 2003 -- STL 7, NYM 6

19: Aug. 19, 2012 -- PIT 6, STL 3

19: July 26, 2011 -- ATL 4, PIT 3

19: May 25, 2011 -- PHI 5, CIN 4

19: July 9, 2006 -- CHW 6, BOS 5

19: Aug. 1, 2000 -- SEA 5, BOS 4

The Pirates became the first team to score three-plus runs in the 19th inning or later since the Expos at Astros on July 7, 1985 (three in 19th). The last time the Pirates did it was July 31, 1912, at Boston Braves (three in 19th).

Pedro Alvarez got the scoring started in the 19th on Sunday with a home run. He's the first Pirates player ever to homer in 19th inning or later and the first on any team since Mike Cameron did it for the Mariners against the Red Sox on Aug. 1, 2000.

The Pirates are now 4-0 in extra innings, the only undefeated team this season.

The Cardinals fall to 3-9 in extra innings, which is tied with the Red Sox for the second-worst record this season.

Here's a look inside the 19-inning game:

Players used: 44 (22 each)

Pitchers used: 16 (8 each)

Plate appearances: 149

Pitches thrown: 574

Game time: 6:07 (tied for longest this season)

Strikeouts: 34

Runners stranded: 26 (13 each)

By the way: Thanks to old friend Peter King for the inspiration of having players fill in on the column this week.

And today will be better than yesterday.