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How Yankees’ Elijah Dunham went from Oreo-eating ‘fat kid’ to undrafted free agent to ranked prospect

NJ.com logo NJ.com 10/22/2021 Randy Miller, nj.com
Yankees outfielder prospect Elijah Dunham is playing in the Arizona Fall League after putting up good numbers as a first-year pro in 2021 for the High-A Tampa Tarpons and High-A Hudson Valley Renegades. © Barry Miller | NJ Advance Media/Randy Miller | NJ Advance Media Yankees outfielder prospect Elijah Dunham is playing in the Arizona Fall League after putting up good numbers as a first-year pro in 2021 for the High-A Tampa Tarpons and High-A Hudson Valley Renegades.

PHOENIX — This is the uplifting story of an on-the-rise Yankees minor leaguer that you probably don’t know but should. Elijah Dunham is a do-it-all, left-handed outfielder who hits home runs, steals bases and has makeup out the wazoo. He’s already ranked among the organization’s top prospects even though he was passed over in last June’s COVID-shortened five-round draft and he’s followed a standout first pro season at two levels with a tremendous first week in the Arizona Fall League.

None of this ascension seemed possible when Dunham was an overweight pre-teen from Evansville, Ind., who used to sneak handfuls of his favorite cookie on a nightly basis.

“I think it was Oreos that got me bad,” Dunham told NJ Advance Media on Thursday before he stood out again going 2-for-5 with a triple and stolen base in Surprise’s 17-2 AFL win over Scottsdale. “Every night my mom would say no, and I’d go down there and start playing video games and eating Oreos.”

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As a 12-year-old, Dunham was short and weighed about 170, a lot more than his three siblings, all of whom were on a skinny side. Elijah was so husky that he played defensive end on the eighth grade football team as a seventh grader, and he was the only kid moved up. He also played power forward in basketball. In baseball, his dad was the manager and put him on first base because that’s where he was best suited for his size. Dunham hit a lot of home runs, but sometimes was on the bench because of his weight.

Yankees outfielder prospect Elijah Dunham is playing in the Arizona Fall League after putting up good numbers as a first-year pro in 2021 for the High-A Tampa Tarpons and High-A Hudson Valley Renegades. © Barry Miller | NJ Advance Media/Randy Miller | NJ Advance Media Yankees outfielder prospect Elijah Dunham is playing in the Arizona Fall League after putting up good numbers as a first-year pro in 2021 for the High-A Tampa Tarpons and High-A Hudson Valley Renegades.

“To this day, my dad tells everyone this story because now I can run,” Dunham said. “He says, ‘I used to pinch run for that fat dude right there.’ If the game was on the line at the end and I’d get on, he’d say, ‘You’re done.’ I’d get mad at him, but how can you get mad at pops. I was huge. No girls liked me because I was fat.”

Dad was worried about his oldest son’s health. The summer between seventh and eighth grade, Elijah was told, “You’re going to start working out,” and a personal trainer was hired to work on speed and agility.

Elijah didn’t fight the extra work because he knew it was for his own good, and he was rewarded with immediate results. He lost only five pounds that summer, but that’s not bad considering he grew a few inches. By the time school started, he looked like a different person. In football, he was moved from line to wide receiver and safety. In basketball he switched to point guard. The girls started noticing him, too.

“I always tell my brothers, eighth grade was my peak year for transformation,” Dunham said. “When I came back to school everyone was like, ‘What?’”

Dunham went on to become one of the most prolific athletes in F.J. Reitz High School history and its only athlete to win section titles in three sports, although he would be upstaged by a girl who graduated two years ahead of him, 2016 Olympic gold medal swimmer Lilly King.

“She’s the best athlete at Reitz because she dominated swimming,” Dunham said with a nod and a smile.

Dunham might be a close second, but there would be more adversity to overcome before his professional baseball career began let alone took off. Once again, it was his body. While he was becoming a college star at Indiana University, he got into weightlifting and took it too far.

“I got really big into it, almost like bodybuilding, and it took away some of my athleticism,” Dunham said. “I got really tight and I wasn’t mobile at all.”

His next body fix didn’t come until after one of the biggest disappointments. He’d been drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 40th round as a draft-eligible college sophomore in 2019, but didn’t consider signing because he figured he could go a lot higher the next year if he kept improving. He did get a lot better as a college junior, which included a switch to the outfield. He was projected to go in the top 10 rounds — possibly as high as the fifth — before COVID killed most of the 2020 season and reduced the MLB draft to five rounds.

Dunham was devastated when no one took him.

“It honestly was one of the saddest days for me because I truly believed in the work I put in,” he said.

Looking back, Dunham calls that disappointment “a blessing” because it added intensity to his hunger of becoming a big leaguer.

Faith always has been a big part of his life. All four of Paul and Augie Dunham’s children have Biblical names — sons Elijah, Isaiah and Josiah, and daughter Moriah.

“I come from a good family,” he said. “My parents raised us in a Christian household in a Midwest city with Midwest Christian values. I loved it. My family is the closest people in my life.”

A year later, his prayers were answered.

“I feel like I’ve become a better player because of that day when I wasn’t drafted,” he said.

First, Dunham learned that he was a coveted undrafted free agent, although clubs were capped at spending just $20,000 for passed over players. He did Zoom and phone interviews with a few clubs, all of whom tried selling its organization while offering 20 grand. He chose the Yankees because they convinced him that their player-development methods were “a mix between the analytics part and old-school baseball.”

Dunham trusted the Yankees’ message because one of the messengers was his former assistant coach at IU, Yankees Triple-A hitting coach Casey Dykes.

“Casey is one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met,” he said. “He’s also a Christian and one of my favorite coaches of all time. He went to the Yankees and was telling me what it was like player-development wise. A lot of orgs were so far one way — the analytics way — and that’s not the kind of the player I am. I think analytics are good, but sometimes you just have to go out there and compete, and what happens, happens. That’s why I like the Yankees, because they value analytics, but they also value having a dog in the box and a dog on the mound.”

After signing, Dunham got some pushback from buddies. They were happy for him, but wondered why he didn’t sign with an organization that would provide an easier path to the big leagues. The Yankees spend big money on outfielders when they need them, plus their farm system already was loaded with touted outfielder prospects, 18-year-old phenom Jasson Dominguez included.

“Friends ask me, ‘Why did you sign with the Yankees? You had a choice?’” Dunham said. “For me, it’s all about just becoming the best player I can be, and if that means going into a high-competition environment … I think it makes me better when I’m surrounded by guys who make me compete and get me out of my comfort zone.”

His first order of business was fixing his body again. With no season to play last summer, he did sprints three days a week and lifted three days a week to get rid of the bodybuilding-fueled tightness. Once again, he saw results in a matter of months. He got quicker, faster and more agile without losing strength, all of which has led to payoffs on the ball field.

“I had a chip on my shoulder and I’ve never worked so hard my entire life,” he said. “I completely changed my body. I changed my speed. I lost weight. I trimmed up. I think I stole two bases in college and then …”

It was actually five, but Dunham began his pro career this year stealing seven bases in seven attempts over his first seven games with the Low-A Tampa Tarpons. He hit safely in his first eight while driving eight runs. This was early verification that he made the right call signing with the Yankees.

“The Yankees are helping me in ways with my base stealing and with my hitting that I don’t think the other teams would,” he said. “I can’t control who’s in front of me at the bigs, but the ultimate goal is to make the big leagues. If it’s with the Yankees, that’d be awesome. If it’s with anybody, it’ll be awesome.”

Dunham, 23, appears on his way. He was an impact offensive player appearing in 93 games with Tampa and High-A Hudson Valley, batting .263 with 25 doubles, 13 homers, 57 RBI, 28 steals in 33 tries and an .825 OPS. He also was a strong defender playing all three outfield positions.

“This is as great of a competitor as I’ve seen on the field,” Hudson Valley manager Dan Fiorito said. “He grinds the game out and it’s shown in his numbers this year. He’s impacting the game in a lot of ways.”

His progress was rewarded this summer when MLB Pipeline updated its prospect rankings. Dunham cracked the Yankees’ top 30 list at No. 24.

“We were in the clubhouse and then Dan comes in and says, ‘Big prospect guy now!’” Dunham recalled. “I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And then he pulled it up and I couldn’t believe it because that wasn’t even on my radar. I thought, ‘That’s never going to be me. I’m just going to have to be this grinder.’ It was another blessing and I was really excited, but I’m not never going to change. I’m still a grinder.”

This past week Dunham has substantiated his ranking with a great start to his Fall League season. Through Thursday, he was batting .417 (5-for-12) with a .632 on-base percentage and five steals in five chances in four games.

“I really love how Elijah plays the game, said Surprise manager Mario Lisson, a Washington Nationals minor-league manager. “He’s playing the game hard. He fights in his at bats. He’s bringing a lot of energy to the team and a lot of people are watching the way he plays. It’s contagious. If you want to continue to advance, you can’t relax and he seems like the kind of guy that’s always going to be getting after it.”

Dunham will say amen to that.

“I know there’s a lot of prospects here, a lot of big talent,” he said. “Again I feel like I’ve got something to prove, so while I’m here I want people to know I’m not a scrub that signed for $20K and is only here just to say he played pro ball. I’m here to stay. I’ll never going to stop being hungry. That’s just who I am. I’m trying to be the best player I can be.”

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Randy Miller may be reached at rmiller@njadvancemedia.com.

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