Misplaced Empathy and the A.J. Ellis Trade

Yesterday afternoon, the Los Angeles Dodgers traded the player who had been in their organization longer than anyone else, catcher A.J. Ellis, to the Philadelphia Phillies for their own long-tenured former-starter-turned-backup catcher, Carlos Ruiz. On the Phillies side of things, it is sad but hardly surprising, as Ruiz has been rumored to be on the trading block for a long time and is the latest link in a chain that has seen Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, and Chase Utley before him traded away.

But on the Dodgers side of things, trading Ellis sent ripples through an organization far beyond what you would expect for a backup catcher who has struggled offensively the past few years and has seen his playing time decrease significantly. Ellis is highly popular with Dodgers players, staff, and fans. In addition, he happens to the best friend of Clayton Kershaw, the best player the Dodgers have had in at least 50 years.

I am delighted to see so many people recognizing that professional baseball players, no matter how great or highly paid they are, are real people with real feelings. I wrote about this subject last year — coincidentally, kicked off by a conversation between Kershaw and Ellis. But as much as I appreciate people’s concern for the individuals involved, I don’t think we’re getting it quite right in this case. Specifically, we’re showing the most empathy to the wrong parties.

Let me share a real-world experience. The details are different, but there are enough analogs to draw some pretty useful comparisons.

Two years ago, I was forced out of the company where I had worked for about a decade — longer than anyone else in the company, in fact. Ownership had changed, and the new CEO and I never really saw eye to eye on some key issues. The fact that he was now responsible for many things that used to be my responsibility was an issue for both of us, if not for the same reasons. The writing was on the wall for quite a while, but even after a period of time in a reduced role, it still came as a jolt when I was eventually shown the door. I left behind dozens of good friends with whom I had worked for many years, including both my very best friend and my brother.

Let’s look at the similarities. For Ellis, the writing has clearly been on the wall, not because of any sort of interoffice politics or philosophical differences, but simply because he is getting old and is not as good as he once was. There was very little chance that he would have been on next year’s roster, and absolutely zero chance in 2018 and beyond. So while the timing came as a surprise, it’s not as if no one saw the eventual end coming. And Ellis leaves behind dozens of great friends who have nothing but love and admiration for him, including Kershaw, with whom he has a special bond.

Let’s get back to my situation. Want to know who took it the hardest when I was let go? In order: my wife, my kids, and me. Want to know who was just fine? My best friend, my brother, and all my other friends at the company. They were sad, sure, but mostly they felt bad for me. Their day-to-day jobs didn’t change a ton. Their opinions of the company didn’t change. Their opinions of the CEO didn’t change. Things were a little bit different for them, but they continued to be very good at their jobs and perform at a high level. (I was pleased to see, though, that when I stopped by the office to visit them several months later, my office was still empty and even still referred to as “Jeff’s office,” even by people who had joined the company since I left.)

I don’t mean to understate the sadness that Kershaw and all the other Dodgers are feeling the past couple days. Without a doubt, they will miss seeing Ellis every day. But they will text and call and do offseason vacations together and all the other things that good friends do. I had a barbecue at my best friend’s house last weekend and lunch with my brother yesterday. Life goes on, and professionals — whether they are computer programmers or customer service experts or the best pitcher in the universe — will continue to do their jobs.

Let’s not let our concern as Dodgers fans — “How will this trade impact the psyche of our best player?” — cause us to misplace our empathy. The real-world issues people are dealing with yesterday and today are happening in the Ellis home, where Cindy and A.J. are explaining to their kids that Daddy used to work here but now he works 3,000 miles away. They are figuring out living arrangements and transportation and what this might mean for the future beyond this year — the sorts of issues that the rest of us can relate to. Maybe Cindy and A.J. made a cake for her family last night with a sloppily drawn Dodgers logo on it to try to get some closure and to put on a happy face for their kids, the way my wife and I did on July 11, 2014.

The rest of the team is still there, together in the locker room. They love A.J. Ellis, but he wasn’t their only friend in the clubhouse. Most of them have been traded or released before, and all of them have seen other friends traded or released. But they aren’t having hard conversations with their wives and kids and making quick, life-changing decisions on the fly.

Good luck, A.J. and Cindy Ellis. I only kind of know what you’re going through, but it’s enough.

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