A coach’s trust and natural athletic talent have senior Ellis Bitar leading Cornell baseball and thriving with a pair of new challenges. He’s begun calling the games for his pitchers this season, all while mastering a second position in center field.
“The last two [years] I’ve stepped up as one of the primary leaders on the team,” said Bitar, who plays catcher and outfield.
Calling games is a responsibility Bitar recently undertook and one not afforded to many college catchers. He said his freedom behind the plate stems from his relationship with his coach.
“[Head coach Dan Pepicelli] told me that he hasn’t trusted many people with calling games,” Bitar said. “He had a guy [when he was an assistant] at Clemson, I think, that he let call games, but other than that not often.”
Bitar’s confidence — and his coach’s confidence in him — behind the plate allows the Katy, Texas, native and his pitchers to stay “locked in” on the field.
“Especially being a catcher, I pretty much control the pitching staff,” he said. “I’ve been calling the games this year behind the plate … I pretty much take over the games.”
While he’s seamlessly transitioned to the outfield, Bitar is a catcher, first and foremost. He said he started catching when he was around 12 years old.
“I was pretty athletic growing up, and we needed an extra catcher and my coach was like ‘why don’t you try it out, you’re pretty athletic,’ and I ended up liking it a lot,” Bitar said. “I was involved in every play, it wasn’t boring at all.”
Catching an 18-inning doubleheader isn’t often feasible and Pepicelli wants to keep Bitar’s bat in the lineup — a bat that was on display April 21 at Penn when Bitar hit three home runs in two games. But a designated hitter spot is wasted on Bitar’s athleticism, so the senior has taken over as a semi-regular outfielder for the Red, starting several games in center field after playing a few games in the corner positions the last two seasons.
Bitar was a catcher and third baseman in high school and never played outfield until he got to Cornell. He said it was an easy adjustment after Pepicelli “threw [him] out there.” His second new job — the move from corner outfield spots to center field — has been easy to learn.
“I think [outfield] easier than playing infield,” Bitar said. “You just see the ball up in the air and you go track it down like a receiver in football. I played a little football in high school so it wasn’t too hard to learn.”
After a three-hit night on Tuesday in a 12-3 win over Binghamton, Bitar leads the team with a .321 batting average and 28 runs batted in, and is second with four home runs. Defensively, he has just two errors in 152 chances.
“He’s just a great team guy,” Pepicelli said. “There’s so many things he can do for us.”
‘I felt helpless’
Bitar’s family and hometown were affected when Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area late last summer.
“It happened near August so I was back [at Cornell] and I had to kind of just keep in touch with my family back home, and all my friends there,” he said. “It was pretty scary, especially when I’m not actually there, but fortunately my house wasn’t hit too bad. I have a few friends that had to evacuate their homes; their house was flooded.”
Being hundreds of miles away in Ithaca, Bitar couldn’t do much to ease his family’s difficulties.
“I felt helpless, like I couldn’t do anything to help my family if they were in trouble,” he said. “I was just scared, praying that nothing bad would happen to them.”
Bitar’s father nearly became one of the hurricane aftermath’s inspiring stories.
“My dad has a big jacked-up pickup truck [and] we have a shopping center near my neighborhood … and people were stuck going to the shopping center so he was driving around, he saw they had big military tanks almost, driving around trying to save people,” Bitar said. “He never actually brought anyone in his truck to bring back, but he definitely could’ve because he was one of the only people who could leave the neighborhood.”
‘It’s about us’
With Pepicelli at the helm since his sophomore season, Bitar has seen his team grow into a “hard-nosed” culture under the former Clemson assistant.
“He thinks it’s about us,” Bitar said of the coach who’s entrusted him with the keys to the pitching staff. “He wants to do his part as a coach, but at the same time he wants us to have that grit and edge on our own and have the freedom to play on our own.”’
Leading the way for Cornell on the field, Bitar said he also has seen his role grow outside the lines.
“As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more confident, I’ve become a leader on the team,” Bitar said. “The biggest thing is having the confidence to lead the younger guys. Because when you’re a younger guy you look up to the older guys and when you get older you start becoming that leader that people look up to.”