Three at-bats, three swings, three hits. So went the 2011 baseball debut of D’Anthony Ellis, playing for Cardozo on May 10 in a game against the School Without Walls. Ellis was there thanks to one big phone call last month from D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
Gray rarely intercedes into matters of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, but by all accounts Ellis is a rare talent — a senior first baseman who nearly was without a team after the squad at Anacostia, where he goes to high school, folded after its first game due to lack of eligible players.
According to DCIAA rules, students cannot play for more than one school in the same sport season, which would have prevented Ellis from joining another school’s team, as often happens when a school doesn’t sponsor a particular sport. DCIAA coaches, though, didn’t want to see Ellis stay off the field. They petitioned Gray to step in. He asked Acting D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to grant an exception.
“He shouldn’t be penalized because he didn’t do anything wrong,” Gray said. “We should not be taking away opportunities from this young man.”
After DCPS handled a few administrative formalities, Ellis began practicing with Cardozo. Now a city known in scouting circles for its dearth of public school baseball talent finally has a stage for a sweet-swinging, 6-foot-2, 185-pound left-hander.
“He’s on my [list of the] top three hitters in the D.C. area over the last 10 years,” said Wilson Coach Eddie Smith, whose team has won the past 18 DCIAA titles, but also faces private schools outside of the league. “And we play a lot of good teams. . . . This guy is super talented, but he was left hanging.”
Ellis, who owns a 3.93 grade-point average and hopes to study engineering in college, didn’t take his debut for granted.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Ellis said after the game. “When I heard about the rule [that prevented him from playing for another team], that took away my hopes. I got depressed. But when my coaches took it all the way to the mayor, I was like, ‘Wow, I must be a superstar.’
“Baseball means a lot to me,” Ellis said. “It teaches me a lot about discipline.”
The last DCPS product to be selected in the major league draft was Emmanuel Burriss in 2006, by way of Kent State, and it’s been 18 years since one was selected first-team All-Met (Spingarn pitcher Larry Williams). Only 11 schools sponsor teams this season (Spingarn’s and Ballou’s folded, in addition to Anacostia’s) and even those that do, hang on by shoestrings (Coolidge had to forfeit what was supposed to be Ellis’s first game with Cardozo on May 3 because it didn’t have enough players that day).
“That’s part of the problem of the environment; he doesn’t get the repetition he needs to get better,” said Gerard Hall, a longtime youth baseball coach in the District and the head of baseball and softball operations for the Congressional Bank Baseball Classic, the annual matchup of the DCIAA champion and a District private-school power at Nationals Park. “College coaches aren’t going to come see D.C. kids unless you’re throwing 95 mph.”
No coaches, though, were going to show up if Anacostia couldn’t field a team. Twenty-four players showed interest at a January meeting, but six fell academically ineligible. Then, after practice started, seven more disappeared. After the Indians lost their season opener to Bell, seven more players missed the grade cut, leaving Anacostia with just four players. The season was over.
“I was devastated,” Ellis said.
Anacostia Coach Lawrence Crawford is friends with longtime Cardozo Coach Frazier O’Leary, and Ellis has played on the same D.C. RBI summer team with Cardozo senior pitcher Tyrone Campbell since they were in the third grade. O’Leary, Smith and other coaches also said they wanted to make sure the rules didn’t keep Ellis from playing.
“We don’t normally get a lot of college ballplayers from the DCIAA, so we had to make an exception,” Smith said. “I’m glad somebody stepped up.”
O’Leary said: “He’s definitely a Division I player, and if I’m a pro scout, I’m coming to see him. If I was a college scout, I’d be drooling over him.”
For the most part, though, Ellis is still an unknown quantity. Division I Delaware State and St. Augustine (Fla.), a Division II school, have each offered Ellis a full academic scholarship, which is critical, since college baseball programs have fewer than half as many scholarships available (11.7) as they typically have players.
“That’s a relief for [college] coaches,” Crawford said, “because they know they don’t have to spend any money on him.”
Pro scouts, meantime, have no idea of Ellis, and it is doubtful he will be taken in next month’s draft. According to one veteran Washington-area major league scout, “I’ve never heard that name in my life,” when asked to appraise Ellis. “I don’t even remember the last time I scouted a D.C. [public school] player.”
And that’s a stigma Ellis will have to overcome wherever he next plays next year.
“He’s got a left-handed swing that nobody’s got,” said Keith Stubbs, executive director of D.C. RBI, a Major League Baseball program designed to increase participation among underserved youth. “But he’s going to get pushed in college unlike he’s ever been.”
For now, though, Ellis and his new teammates have a two-week push left, which could land them in the DCIAA championship game, looking to thwart Wilson’s 18-year run atop the league.
“Oh, I’m glad we’ve got him now,” Campbell said. “Wilson, here we come.”