Life is full of big decisions, and Casey Kelly has had to make his share since being selected as the 30th overall pick in the 2008 draft. A two-sport standout at Sarasota (FL) High School, Kelly first had to choose between signing with the Red Sox and accepting a scholarship to play quarterback at the University of Tennessee. Once baseball-and Boston’s $3 million contract offer-won out, the question became: Is Casey Kelly a pitcher, or is he a shortstop? After making his professional debut as an infielder, Kelly will report to spring training as a pitcher, but the Red Sox are keeping their options open, and Kelly will be bringing his batting gloves to camp.
David Laurila: Shortly after you were drafted, Theo Epstein said of you: “You can hear the passion in his voice when he talks about baseball.” What do you think he meant by that?
Casey Kelly: Well, you know, everybody was worried about me playing football and stuff like that. But in my heart, for my whole life I’ve loved baseball; I’ve loved playing baseball and everything about it. I grew up around it, and it’s just something that I love to do. To have it as my job is something I just really wanted.
DL: When did you know that you were going to sign?
CK: I knew that I was going to sign, really. It just kind of depended on who was going to draft me and what the situation was. A lot of things had to be worked out between football and baseball and that kind of thing, but once everything worked out, everything happened real fast. I told everybody straight up that I wanted to play baseball, and that I wasn’t going to just go play football. That was the thing; I was straight up about telling everybody I wanted to play baseball. I mean, if things didn’t work out in the draft, then I definitely would have gone and played football, but baseball was my first love.
DL: What do you remember thinking when you woke up on the morning after the draft?
CK: I didn’t know if it was a dream, or if it had just happened. It was definitely exciting to wake up and look at the newspaper and see that it actually had happened, that it really wasn’t just a dream.
DL: What was more stressful: the final stages of the draft process, or your first days in pro ball?
CK: Draft day was definitely stressful, because you don’t know where you’re going to go-you know, who is going to pick you. My first day of pro ball wasn’t really all that stressful. It was just a lot of fun, because I was excited to be out there and playing baseball for my job; getting to play baseball for my job was the biggest thing. So I was excited more than anything.
DL: You started out in the Gulf Coast League, but then moved up to the New York-Penn League to finish the season. What was it like playing in Lowell, where the ballpark is sold out every game?
CK: It was big excitement. Playing in Fort Myers in the GCL is tough, because you’re playing at noon every day and you don’t have fans, so coming up to play in Lowell was exciting. The games are exciting, and you play in front of five thousand people every game. That makes it more fun, so I was just enthusiastic about being there. Playing at night, and in front of a few thousand people, gets your adrenaline rushing a little more. It just makes the game a whole lot better.
DL: You come from a real baseball family. What impact has that had on you?
CK: Well, my dad is a coach in the Cincinnati Reds‘ organization. He’s had the biggest impact on my career, definitely, by far. It’s been him teaching me everything, and traveling with him during the summer and hanging out in locker rooms. That’s allowed me to pick up things, like how the players went about their business. My dad always helped me after games, like if I had any questions and stuff. And my brother is a pitcher in the Rays organization; he’s always been there for me. I call him after every game, to talk, and he helps me out with the stages of being in pro ball as a player. That’s been a big help. There’s also my cousin, Dustin Kelly, who played in the Red Sox organization a couple of years ago. He had nothing but good things to say about the organization, and about how well you get treated here.
DL: Has your father talked to you about the differences from organization to organization and what you might expect?
CK: Yes, every organization is different; everybody handles their players a little differently. My dad was really excited when I got drafted by the Red Sox, because he knew that it was a world-class organization that was going to treat me right. He knew that the best things available to me would be in this organization.
DL: Going into the draft, which teams besides the Red Sox showed the greatest interest?
CK: There was a lot of talk that the Nationals were going to take me. There were also the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees, but then it comes around to their turn and you don’t hear your name called, and you just wait and wait. I finally got a call from the Red Sox before they picked, and they said, “Would you like to go?” and with no hesitation I was like, “Yeah.”
DL: Of the teams you talked to prior to the draft, were most looking at you as a pitcher, or as a position player?
CK: I told everybody before the draft that I wanted to be a shortstop. You know, that was kind of the big thing. Some teams liked me more as a pitcher, while others liked me more as a shortstop. That was kind of the toughest thing, just knowing which teams wanted me at which position, and everything like that. Telling everybody before the draft that I wanted to play shortstop kind of backed some people off; it kind of changed their minds, because they liked me better as a pitcher.
DL: Would going to a National League team have impacted your thought process, given that there is no designated hitter?
CK: Not really, because when you play rookie ball and A-ball-pitchers don’t get to hit until Double-A. So that wasn’t really a big deal for me. I still wanted to play shortstop, and I couldn’t do that if I was pitching.
DL: Do you see any reason that a pitcher can’t serve as a designated hitter between starts?
CK: I don’t see a big problem with it. I’d like to try it and see how it works out, and kind of go from there. Nobody has really done it before, so it’s kind of uncharted waters, and I’d definitely love to try it to see if would work out.
DL: You father has been in the game for a long time. Have you talked to him about the conservative nature of baseball, and how most teams are averse to thinking outside the box?
CK: Yeah, I mean, when the Red Sox said something about it, his eyes kind of widened, because most organizations don’t work with you like that. The Red Sox were willing to do what they had to do, and stuff like that, so he was real excited about it. He was like, “Who says you can’t do it?”
DL: You’re going to get an opportunity to both pitch and play shortstop this year. How will your season be structured?
CK: Well, we kind of sat down this offseason and projected a plan for 2009, and I’ll be pitching the first half of the season; I’ll be coming into spring training as a pitcher. Then, in the second half, once I reach my max innings, I’ll become a shortstop. The organization saw me play shortstop this past summer, and they didn’t want to close the door on me playing there, but they still wanted to see me pitch so we figured out a way for me to do both.
DL: Are you going to get a chance to hit while you’re working as a pitcher?
CK: I think they just want me to focus on pitching for the first half. Then I think I’ll have about a week where I can get ready to play shortstop and start hitting. After the season we’ll figure out which is the best route for me and which will get me up to Boston the fastest. I’m looking forward to that challenge.
DL: Prior to the draft, your father was quoted as saying, “Baseball is scared of football and football is scared of baseball.” What are you scared of?
CK: I’m not scared of anything. Football people, when I was trying to get signed to go to college, everybody was worried about the draft. And on the other side, the people who were maybe drafting me, they were like, “Are you going to play football?” and stuff like that. It was kind of frustrating for me, because nobody was really sure and nobody really wanted to take a chance. So it was kind of frustrating, but everything worked out in the end.
DL: How difficult was it to leave football behind?
CK: I don’t regret my decision at all. I see these college games on TV and they look fun, but you also have to go through two-a-days, practices at six in the morning, weight lifting, and all that kind of stuff. The games are a lot of fun, but practices aren’t, really. So I definitely don’t regret the decision.
DL: How would you compare the physical demands of the two sports?
CK: Baseball is an everyday job. Football, you play once a week and have six days to get healthy and kind of restore your wounds. Baseball you have to play every day, so you can’t dwell on one game very long because you have another one the next day. You have to be mentally tough to play every day. Football is more of a physical game. You have to be mental in football, but in baseball, you can have ability, but if you don’t have the mental strength for a whole season it is going to be very tough for you to succeed.
DL: Which is more similar to the quarterback position, shortstop or pitcher?
CK: I don’t know if it is one more than the other. Quarterbacking definitely helps me at shortstop because you’re going out of the pocket and making throws on the run, which is exactly what you do at shortstop. My footwork in football makes me faster, so at shortstop I feel quicker and smoother. I owe that all to football. And of course, it strengthens my arm. My arm strength has gotten up a lot more since I was a junior or senior, just by playing football. On the baseball field that really shows.
DL: How about in regards to the decision-making process?
CK: In football, everything happens faster. When you’re under center you have to think about blitzes and coverages; you have to make audibles and all that stuff. In baseball, when you’re playing shortstop, there’s only one thing: when the ball is hit to you, you have to know where to go with it. Football helps you to concentrate more in baseball; you think of different things when you’re playing baseball. When you’re under center, you have about five things you have to think about at once. In baseball, that helps you out a lot in slowing the game down.
DL: Life in the minor leagues is far different than major-college football, especially the size of the crowds. Rather than playing in front of close to a hundred thousand fans, it will be just a few thousand.
CK: When you look at it, it would have been great; it would have been awesome to play at Tennessee. But I don’t miss it, because I was never there. I never played in a game or ran out of the T, and you can’t really miss something that you haven’t been there for yet. The games look like a lot of fun, but the minor leagues were something I was raised on, and baseball is something I just love to do.