I was something of a phenom in my younger days.
When my select team played doubleheaders, I pitched the first game and caught the second game. I was excellent at both—on every team I played for until high school, I was the ace of the pitching staff as well as a great defensive catcher. While I never threw a perfect game or a no-hitter, I frequently threw complete games with double-digit strikeouts.
I’ve got the game balls to prove it. They’re in a box somewhere in my parents’ basement.
The closest I ever came to a perfect game was when I was four outs away and a slow groundball down the third base line hit the base and popped straight up in the air. The opposing dugout celebrated like they had just won the World Series. Before throwing another pitch, I picked the runner off first base to end the inning. The next inning, I struck out the side to end the game.
Behind the plate, I called a great game, threw out nearly every runner stealing, and picked off aggressive runners with ease. I was a very good right-handed hitter as well, though I didn’t have much power. One year, maybe in sixth grade, I didn’t hit a ball left of centerfield and didn’t hit any homeruns. Nobody complained, though: I hit .800.
There were questions, though: Would I hit for enough power to become a major-league catcher? And if I became a pitcher, would I stand out among the multitudes of hard-throwing right-handers?
So one night, in eighth grade, at the age of 13, my parents and I sat down at our dinner table to discuss whether I should be a catcher or a pitcher in my baseball career. We discussed my skills at each position in great detail. We talked about stamina, breaking balls, Knee Savers, and average career lengths. We debated whether a shoulder or knee is more likely to blow out during a grueling season. We talked about what scouts are looking for at each position, as though any of us had any idea.
The only thing we agreed on is that we needed a second opinion.
So my parents decided to send me to a pitching clinic in California put on by former MLB pitcher and pitching coach Tom House to figure out if I was cut out for pitching. This was a big step for me, as it was the first time I flew on an airplane by myself.
I stayed with my aunt and uncle in San Jose. When my taxi arrived at their house, the late summer sun was setting and everything on their street was golden. Inside, there was a note on their kitchen counter that read:
WILL BE BACK LATER TONIGHT. COLLEEN’S ROOM IS SET UP FOR YOU. EAT WHATEVER YOU WANT. LOVE YOU.
In the bedroom of my older cousin Colleen, who was away at college, the walls were covered with cut-out magazine ads. The theme of the room was half-naked dudes. Abercrombie and Fitch, Dolce and Gabbana, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss—if there was a half-naked dude advertising a product, my cousin Colleen had cut out the ad and taped it on her bedroom wall. It was a shrine to shaved chests and six-pack abs. I remember looking down at my own stomach, wondering where those ripples were supposed to be.
Somehow, looking at my soft stomach made me hungry. However, soon after reaching the kitchen, I realized I didn’t know how to make anything except sandwiches and microwaveable burritos. I searched every cupboard, every drawer, every inch of the refrigerator for something I recognized. Then, on the right-hand side of the fridge, next to the condiments, something I recognized came into focus: a jar of maraschino cherries so big I needed two hands to pick it up.
That evening, in front of the television between 6 and 8 PM, I dipped my fingers into the thick syrup until my fingers were red and I ate that whole fucking jar of cherries.
The next day was the first day of the pitching camp. My uncle woke me up early. My stomach hurt. Over breakfast and the ride to the field, he asked me to fill him in on everything that had happened since we saw each other last, but I didn’t have anything important happening in my life or anything important to say about it. I was 13; school was boring, baseball was fun, and girls were hot.
At the camp the next three days, the other players and I went through drills, watched demonstrations, and listened to Tom House talk about his star student, Mark Prior of the Chicago Cubs. “Proper mechanics,” House told us, “create successful pitchers and prevent arm injuries.” We looked at dozens of photographs of Mark Prior’s mechanics, which were graded to be “Elite Major League” in a very professional report produced by House’s company.
At the end of the third day House told us, “Now, that was our last drill of the camp, but I’ve been watching each one of you and I’d like to fill out your Mechanics Assessment forms. So put your name on the top of the form, fill out what grade you think you deserve in each category, and get in a single-file line.”
I filled my form out quickly and got the best spot I could in line. Looking down at the evaluation form, I wondered how he would grade me in the categories in the packet. When I got to the front of the line, House was sitting on a baseball bucket. He took my packet and squinted at the top of the page.
“Hi, Conor,” he said.
“Hi, Mr. House,” I said.
I had been looking at House pretty closely the past three days, trying to figure out how this guy played Major League baseball. He couldn’t have been an inch taller than me at the time, wore glasses, and had cankles.
Years later I read that when Tom House was pitching for the Atlanta Braves, he caught Hank Aaron’s 715th career homerun in the Braves’ bullpen. When House ran down to home plate and presented Aaron the ball, Aaron mistook him for one of the ballboys.
That same article also said he never threw a pitch harder than 82 miles per hour, despite admittedly using steroids. And that he was born in Seattle, like me.
He looked through the grades I gave myself—mostly 8’s and 9’s out of 10. “Pretty confident huh,” he said. He lifted his eyes from the page to look me up and down, stopping on my midsection for a long second. Admiring my camp T-shirt, I thought. Once his eyes returned to the packet, his pen flew over my page. He closed the packet and handed it back to me. “Next,” he said. The kid behind me nudged his way past me.
I flipped through the packet looking for my Mechanics Assessment.
In the “balance” section I gave myself a 9. I could stand on one leg all day. House’s grade? 4.
In “posture” I gave myself a 7. My parents always said I had pretty good posture. House’s grade? 5.
“Head only goes to the plate.” I said 8. My head didn’t feel like it was going anywhere else. House? 4.
For “Opposite and equal” I gave myself a 7. House? 3. “At foot strike,” 8. House, 4. “Hip and shoulder separation,” 8. House, 5. “Squeeze and swivel,” 8. House, 4. “Release point,” 9. House, 4.
My face felt hot and I felt sick to my stomach. But he knew my name, I thought. Didn’t he know how good I was? At the bottom of the page, in all capitals, circled, were the words CORE STRENGTH.
I guess my camp T-shirt wasn’t what he was looking at, I remember thinking.
I guess I’m a catcher.
It was the summer of 2010; it was years after Mark Prior’s career had ended due to a series of arm injuries. I was catching in the MINK summer collegiate league for the Ozark Generals of Crane, Missouri. Later that summer, we found out we were ranked the 4th best collegiate summer league in the nation.
That summer our head coach Andy Bettis and I talked all summer about getting me to hit for more power. Though I put on pretty impressive shows in batting practice, all I could seem to do in games was hit singles and fly out to the warning track. One of these deep flyouts was the final out of the game, a foot short of a three-run game-tying homerun. The power never came.
One day, after our last round of BP, Coach Bettis dismissed us. While I packed up my bag in the dugout, he put a hand on my shoulder. “You know, Kelley, you’ve got a hell of an arm. You might get converted into a pitcher down the line.”
“That would be awesome, Coach,” I said.
“Yeah, you keep popping 1.7’s and somebody will draft you and convert you to a pitcher. We might be a little short on arms this summer. You ever pitch before?”
“Yeah, a little.”
“Why don’t you grab your infielder’s glove and throw a ‘pen for me?”
In the bullpen, some of my teammates gathered around. Every position player thinks he can pitch, just like every pitcher thinks he can hit. The position players were excited that one of us was getting a chance. One of them grabbed a radar gun from the clubhouse and stood behind the catcher.
I popped the glove pretty loudly, which elicited some whistles and oohs. Coach Bettis asked me if I had any off-speed pitches, so I threw a couple of sliders. One or two backed up on me, but the rest were sharp. “Changeup?” he asked. I threw a couple changeups that faded down in the strike zone. He told me to finish up with a couple fastballs.
After I finished, I walked down to the catcher and shook his hand.
“Where was I at?” I asked the guy holding the radar gun.
“88,” he responded.
I walked over to Coach Bettis.
“Did you pitch at your college this year?” Bettis asked.
“One inning in fall ball. Walked the bases loaded then struck out the side.”
He laughed. “JuCo?” he asked.
“Not really,” I said.
“When’s the last time you really pitched?” he asked, confused.
Coach Bettis told me I would continue catching the first game of every doubleheader. If he needed me, though, I would come out of the bullpen in the second game.
Then he furrowed his eyebrows and asked me what made me stop pitching and I shrugged my shoulders, because it was a long story.
©2013 by Conor Kelley