Great Falls, MT-In December of 2009, John Ely was traded by his hometown Chicago White Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ever since then, the former Major League pitcher has been trying to find a way to return to the organization that originally drafted him. He recently found his way.
John Ely is from Harvey, Illinois, a south suburb of Chicago. The 31-year-old grew up idolizing the White Sox. Upon being drafted in the 3rd round out of Miami University (OH), he couldn't fully grasp it at first glance. "It was hard to believe", said Ely. "I was beside myself when I got the call that my hometown team had drafted me. I felt extremely motivated."
The right-hander pitched in the White Sox farm system for three seasons from 2007 to 2009. Ely made his professional debut at the age of 21 with Great Falls during that summer of 2007. The team was known as the White Sox back then, and Ely was a starter for the Great Falls squad that finished with a Pioneer League best 51-24 record. The 51 wins ranks as the fourth highest in franchise history. Ely remembered how "surprised he was by the town's support for the team and how the crowds were always large and energetic." Ely posted a 6-1 record with a 3.86 ERA in 13 appearances and 12 starts.
From Great Falls, Ely worked his way up the White Sox ladder and pitched for the Winston-Salem Warthogs (now the Dash) in 2008. He reached double-A in 2009 with the Birmingham Barons. After the 2009 season, Ely learned he was dealt to the Dodgers along with fellow pitcher Jon Link for outfielder Juan Pierre and cash. Ely had just completed a 14-2 season with an ERA of 2.82 for Birmingham in 27 starts. He was named a Southern League postseason All-Star after leading the league in strikeouts and tying for the league lead in wins.
It wasn't long after the trade that Ely made his big league debut. On April 28th, 2010, Ely and the Dodgers faced the Mets under the bright lights of New York. Ely recounted, "Playing in New York was almost a blur. Everything happened very fast but I remember trying not to embarrass myself in the locker room. When I was warming up, it was like any other game but a bit more anxious. I also remember looking up when I took the mound and thinking the stands went on forever. From there, I just tried to trust myself."
Ely pitched six innings that night in New York. He took the loss and gave up five earned runs on six hits with four strikeouts and three walks. His home debut at Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles came in his next start for the Dodgers on May 6th, 2010 against Milwaukee. Ely was ready for the moment. He lasted six-and-two-thirds and allowed just one earned run on four hits with seven strikeouts and no walks. He did not factor in the decision. Ely mentioned, "It's hard to explain how it feels to walk out on the mound and pitch at Dodger Stadium. It's surreal. Best way to handle it is to focus on the game."
John Ely never had the chance to pitch in front of White Sox fans in his beloved Chicago. He did, however, experience the next best thing. Pitching in front of Cubs fans at Wrigley Field goes down as his most fond memory in the majors. It happened for Ely in his sixth start on May 27th, 2010. In front of family and friends, Ely pitched well in taking a 1-0 loss. It was his longest outing of the season. He went seven-and-a-third and yielded just one earned run on four hits with four strikeouts and two walks. "I tried to put on a pretty good show," Ely said following the game. His first win on the mound would come later on May 11th against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The bulk of Ely's MLB career came in 18 starts during the 2010 season. He went 4-10 with an ERA of 5.49. He struck out 76 and walked 40 in 100 innings pitched. Ely made five appearances for the Dodgers in 2011 and two more in 2012. The former White Sox farmhand was named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year for triple-A Albuquerque in 2012. After that, Ely closed out his career in the minors with Houston, Boston, and Milwaukee, and had a brief stint in independent ball with the Sioux City Explorers (American Association) in 2015.
Before phoning Buddy Bell in the White Sox front office to inquire about becoming a professional pitching coach, John Ely became a college coach. He served as the pitching coach for Chicago State University in 2016. He was also the manager of the Southland Vikings, a summer collegiate team. Ely enjoyed coaching college players, but said he wanted to try his hand at coaching professionally because that is what's most familiar to him. When it comes to mentoring pitchers for the Voyagers, Ely said, "I want the guys to be themselves. They are here for a reason. I mostly want to help acclimate them to pro ball and put them into a routine and instill some good habits."
"I think it's important they know how vital the little things are. They need to learn how and what pitching is all about. This is the first point where most of these guys can't just beat hitters with pure 'stuff'. They also need to know how to stay level-headed and realize it's a very long season. They'll need to learn how to handle the grind."
When John Ely learned he would be the new pitching coach in Great Falls this summer, his temperature rose. "I was really excited that I'd be able to start my coaching career where I started my playing career." Ely added, "Since arriving in Great Falls, everything almost looks identical to the way it was in 2007." The rivers and streams are certainly still here, and Ely has already found a few brief moments to break out his fishing poles in the Treasure State. He's glad to be home.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.