“MY FATHER USED TO PLAY WITH MY BROTHER AND ME IN THE YARD. MOTHER WOULD COME OUT AND SAY, ‘YOU’RE TEARING UP THE GRASS.’ ‘WE’RE NOT RAISING GRASS,’ DAD WOULD REPLY. ‘WE’RE RAISING BOYS.’” -HARMON KILLEBREW
Households across America will celebrate Father’s Day on Sunday, June 21st. Unfortunately, not every home has a father living in it. In some instances, the fathers are away, serving their country. Those men are setting fine examples for their children, teaching the importance of duty, honor and self-sacrifice. Some fathers are tragically absent because of their untimely deaths. Their children are growing up with a void that can never really be replaced, only remembered. Still, other homes have been abandoned by men who don’t deserve the appellation “father.”
BEHIND EVERY YOUNG BOY WHO BELIEVES IN HIMSELF IS A FATHER WHO BELIEVED IN HIM FIRST.
While the role of father is equally important in the lives of daughters, this article is focused on the relationship between fathers and sons. This article came into being at the suggestion of a daughter, Aubrie Kastner, who is the Merchandise and Visual Coordinator for Cavender’s, the western-wear store headquartered in Tyler. “My dad is Robert Ellis,” Aubrie explained. “He played professional baseball for sixteen-years. After retiring, he coached for the Mets until he made the decision to come home to be with his family and coach my brother. He was the head baseball coach at my brother’s high school.”
Robert Ellis was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on December 15, 1970, the middle child of three boys. “I grew up playing all sports,” Ellis says. “It’s a lot different today. Kids tend to specialize in just one or two sports now.” He started playing T-ball at the age of six, but his parents were pushing him toward basketball and soccer and those sports became his major focus for much of his childhood.
By the time he was in high school, he was playing every sport his school offered. “I was All State player in football, basketball and baseball. I was runner-up Louisiana High School Athlete of the Year in 1988. I also played soccer, but not in high school. I played soccer for a city league, Baton Rouge United, on the weekends.” He remembers playing sports was fun when he was growing up. It was something he excelled at, but it was when he was in college that he realized his real love was baseball. “In 1988, I enrolled at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and played football and baseball. In the spring semester, I decided to transfer the following fall to Panola Junior College to play baseball.”
One reason for transferring was because a junior college player is draft eligible after their sophomore year, which gives a player three years of draft eligibility. “I never really knew how good I was until I was pitching in a game against Texas A&M, I was throwing 95 mph. That was when a scout approached me and told me I could possibly get drafted,” Ellis explains. “I was drafted out of Panola in the third round. I was the 76th overall pick in 1990 by the Chicago White Sox. I had signed with Florida State but never went because I joined the White Sox instead.”
His sixteen-year professional baseball career included twelve years playing in the minor leagues and four years in the majors. He began his career with the White Sox as a starting pitcher. Ellis’ best year in the minors, statistically, was in 1993. “I had a good year pitching in Double A, and we won the championship. But I had an injury that required Tommy John surgery in 1994 and again in 1995.
After the surgery, Ellis was forced to reinvent himself on the mound. “I lost some speed on my fast ball and my curve was not as crisp as it had been. My changeup was always there but what saved me was the cutter. I especially worked on throwing up and in on left-handed hitters, which helped me survive the game a little longer.”
His debut in Major League Baseball came on September 12, 1996, with the California Angels. He spent a year with the Angels. His first complete MLB season was in 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “I was the number three starter, but I broke my arm in a freak accident that left me unable to complete the season. A line drive took me out of the lineup, but I was able to pitch in the last game of the season, which made me eligible for the play-off roster.” His teammates in 2001 included pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Shilling. Other veteran players on the D-backs that year included Luis Gonzales, Mike Morgan, Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Steve Findley, and Russ Springer. In the fourth year of the franchise’s existence, the team won the National League pennant and went on to defeat the New York Yankees in a seven-game World Series. “I was on the team roster for the series, but never played in the series. Still, being on a World Series team was a great highlight for my career.” The Diamondbacks won 14 out of Ellis’ 17 starts that year, which made him a huge contributor to their championship season.
After playing for the Diamondbacks, Ellis played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002 and made his final MLB appearance for the Texas Rangers on August 16, 2003. Following his MLB career, Ellis went on to pitch in the International League for the Cleveland and Philadelphia organizations. On February 4, 2009, he was hired as a pitching coach in the New York Mets farm organization. While working with the Mets organization, Ellis developed a strength and conditioning program that would open another door to another career.
“In order to stay in the pros as long as I could, I spent the off-season playing for six seasons in the Dominican Republic and two seasons in Venezuela. The cost for me to have the professional baseball career as long as I did was not being with my wife and kids,” he explains. On September 8th of this year, he and his wife Jodi will celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. They met in Carthage at Panola Junior College. What he did not know as a college sophomore, was that the girl he was chasing on campus was actually a high school student taking college courses for dual credit. “We married young and started a family. We have three grown children, and now we have three grandchildren. Our daughter Aubrie has two children, Jax who is five and Ellis who is seven months. Our daughter Morgan has a seventeen-month-old named Sadie. Our youngest is Duke. He graduated from The University of Texas at Austin this May. The possibility to be his coach is the reason I left the Mets organization in the fall of 2009 when Duke was in junior high in Henderson, Texas.”
In 2008, Ellis completed the college degree he had started when he was drafted by the White Sox organization. After playing pro ball and starting his coaching career with the Mets, Ellis bumped into Dickie Meeks at the Frank’n Burger in Henderson. Meeks was the head coach at Henderson High. “It was one of those ‘right place, right time’ things. I was home in Henderson visiting my family and Meeks walked up to me and said, ‘You look like you used to play a little ball.’ I introduced myself and told him I was currently working for the Mets as a pitching coach in their farm league. I mentioned I was looking for a way out, to spend more time with my kids. He asked if I knew anything about strength and conditioning and I told him I had just completed development on a strength and conditioning program aimed at multi-sport high school athletes. Then I mentioned I had recently completed my degree, and he said, ‘That’s even better.'”
Ellis took a job in Henderson, with the intention of eventually coaching his son. For the first two years, he worked mainly with the kids on strength and conditioning. In 2010, Henderson won the State Championship. “The biggest change was the strength and conditioning program. We implemented it with the 6th graders, teaching them age-appropriate motor skills. We concentrated on injury prevention, and if a student got injured, we worked on the proper way to recover from injuries.”
When the baseball coach, Sonny Simmons, left Henderson, Ellis took over the program. He was given free rein to continue developing his strength and conditioning curriculum. “One thing I knew, and what I wanted my son and his classmates to understand, is there are lots of variables with growing kids. They don’t all develop physically at the same rate. It’s important to work at the proper pace for their size and weight. One reason I got Duke into track was to help develop his hamstring properly. My program concentrates on teaching the right way to play and the right way to train, whatever the sport. Proper training and conditioning prevent injuries.”
LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
By the time Duke was starting his freshman year in high school, Ellis was offered a position at Central Heights in Nacogdoches. He moved his family to Nacogdoches and coached his son’s team for all four years of high school. “Duke is a talented athlete. He was small then, about 5’3″ and 96 pounds, what you might call a late bloomer. It was fun watching his growth spurts. He was constantly catching up to his body.” Duke recorded impressive high school stats: lettered all four years; named All-District MVP as a senior in both baseball and basketball; All-District Offensive MVP in his junior year; named to the All-District First Team in his sophomore and freshman seasons. His senior year, he was MVP of the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Associations All-star Game and First Team All-State.
Despite his high school performance, he wasn’t recruited by any major division one, four year colleges. Duke made the decision to follow in his father’s footsteps and signed a full baseball scholarship with Panola for his first year of college. Duke’s freshman year performance was impressive: compiling a .415/.491/.615 line in 53 games during his freshman season at Panola; hit 4 homers, 5 triples, and 17 doubles; while driving in 36 and adding 62 runs scored; he also stole 21 bases on the year; and was named the conference’s Freshman of the Year. He was drafted in the 20th round by the Padres.
After Duke’s freshman year, he was recruited by several Big D1 programs. Duke had always dreamed of playing for the University of Texas. When he received a call from Coach Pearce at UT saying that he wanted Duke to come play for him, the decision was easy. He made the decision to not sign with the Padres and continue his academic and baseball development at UT. For the past three years, Duke has continued growing as he honed his skills in centerfield for the Longhorns. He is now 6’2″ and 180 pounds. Since playing as a Longhorn, he was named to the All Big XII, missing the batting title 390 to 391. In 2018, when Duke was a sophomore, they went to the College World Series and won the Big 12 Championship.
Duke finished the season in his junior year at UT with a .289/.389/.353-line, one home run and 27 RBIs. He was successful in 16-of-18 stolen base attempts on the year; was named first team All-Big 12 Conference outfielder; reached base just in front of the walk-off hero in all three of the Longhorns’ walk-off wins (two infield singles, one walk). In Big 12 games, Duke led the league in on-base percentage (.484) and finished second in batting average (.390); he had a team-long 16-game hitting streak from April 18th to May 23rd; had 18 multi-hit games and reached base safely in 23 straight games; on May 18th vs. TCU, beat out a two-out infield single to set up Kody Clemens’ walk-off home run; had multi-hit games in six of eight contests from April 24th to May 6th; on May 1st vs. Texas State, Duke drew a walk to load the bases to set up David Hamilton’s walk-off grand slam; in the three game series at West Virginia, went 7-for-14 with an RBI in each game; went 4-for-8 with three RBI and a double in the Longhorns’ two wins at Oklahoma April 13th-14th; went 4-for-4 with three runs scored on April 6th vs. Baylor; walked three times on March 18th vs. Kansas; improved his batting average from .182 to .275 in 13 games from February 25th to March 16th; hit his first career home run on March 3rd in game two of the doubleheader vs. Northwestern; picked up his first two career steals on February 27th vs. UTSA; had a three-hit game on February 24th at LSU; picked up his first career hit in the ninth inning on February 17th vs. Louisiana, setting up the Longhorns’ walk-off homer later in the inning; and was named to the 2017 Fall Big 12 Commissioner’s Honor Roll.
Neither the team nor Duke had as stellar a year in 2019. Duke played in all 54 games, starting in 52. His stats for the year included: batting .266 with 42 runs scored, seven doubles, one triple and a home run; led the team with a 45 walks and a perfect 17-for-17 on stolen bases; finished the season on a four-game hitting streak with 10 hits, including two doubles and had four stolen bases; went 4-for-4 in the season finale against Oklahoma on May 17th with a double and a runs scored; went 2-for-3 in first game of May 17th doubleheader against Oklahoma; in the series opener against Oklahoma on May 16th, went 2-for-4 with a double and a run scored; in final midweek game of the season against Incarnate Word, went 2-for-4 with a one RBI and one run; went 3-for-5 with two RBI and a run at Oklahoma State on April 20th; went 2-for-3 with two runs and a triple against Rice on April 9th; went 2-for-4 with two doubles and a run at Baylor on April 5th; went 2-for-5 with a run against Xavier on March 31; went 2-for-5 with a walk-off two RBI double on March 29th: had a two hit game at TCU on March 24th; went 2-for-3 against TCU on March 22nd; went 2-for-4 with two runs and one RBI against Texas Southern on March 12th; had a five game hit streak from March 3rd-9th, which included a two hit game during the win against Stanford on March 9th; went 2-for-3 with a two-run home run during the win against LSU on March 1st; went 2-for-4 with a double at Louisiana on February 16th; first hit was on February 15th at Louisiana.
Duke’s senior year was interrupted by the global coronavirus pandemic. The team was 14-3 before the season was canceled. Duke had two hits with a run against Arizona on March 3rd; went 2-for-4 with a stolen base against Boise State on February 22nd; had two hits which included a double, two runs, and a stolen base against Boise State on February 21st; went 2-for-4 with a run at Rice on February 16th; had two hits which included a triple and a run scored at Rice on February 14th; first hit of the season was at Rice on February 14th.
Duke’s cumulative performance for three years in the NCAA prior to the cancellation of the final part of his senior season shows professional promise. For his three years playing NCAA ball, Duke’s batting achievements include: batting average .281; 442 at bats; 92 total runs scored; 43 runs batted in; 124 hits; 40 stolen bases; 2 home runs; 5 triples; 13 doubles; .409 on base percentage; .346 slugging percentage; .755 on base plus percentage. His fielding stats include: 113 chances to put out; 111 put outs; 2 assists; 0 errors; 1 double play; 1.000 fielding percentage; 2.09 range factor.
Father and son have taken great advantage of their time together during this time of social distancing due to the cancellation of virtually everything in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are training together at home. Being isolated has given us plenty of time to work out together. It has also given us time to talk about the future. Duke has been very open about what he wants. Now that he has graduated, he wants to become a major league ball player but the 2020 MLB draft has been cut from 40 rounds to only 5 rounds. If he does not get drafted this year, he will return to UT for a repeat senior season granted by the NCAA and will be eligible for the 2021 MLB draft.
Robert Ellis is now with the LA Dodgers, again. This time, he is working as a pitching coach in Player Development. Once Major League baseball gets back on the field, he will likely be assigned to the Arizona League, where he will work with the young kids coming into the organization. In the meantime, he and Duke are waiting to see what happens with the 2020 MLB draft, now scheduled to take place on June 10th. “I’m very proud of how well Duke has developed, both as a player and as a young man. I know he loves the game as much as I do. He wants to make a career in professional baseball. I hope he gets that opportunity. Like any father, I want to see my kids happy. I know how tough a career in professional sports can be. I am just extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to spend so much time with my kids, finally. There is nothing like being able to coach one’s son. Nothing like it all!”