Former Ballard pitcher Shawn Kelley (center) earned his first save as the Yankees' closer Monday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Following John Wooden as the UCLA basketball coach has always ranked as the Most Difficult Replacement Act in sports.
Taking Michael Jordan's spot in the Bulls' backcourt was equally impossible. There's never been another Joe Montana.
There's a new nominee for the list – a former Ballard High School athlete trying to replace a guy who cannot be replaced.
That would be Shawn Kelley, who finished pitching for Ballard in 2002. Kelley is a right-handed relief pitcher who has the job that Mariano Rivera handled with Hall of Fame flawlessness for 17 seasons – closing baseball games for the New York Yankees.
"Shawn's the same guy today as he was when we grew up hanging out at the St. Matthews Little League," said David Trager. "He's just doing it on a little bigger stage."
Closing baseball games for the Yankees is like sharing the big screen with Jennifer Lawrence. There's a reason I worked the Academy Award-winning actress into the sixth paragraph.
Kelley, Trager and Blaine Lawrence, Jennifer's older brother, played together at St. Matthews Little League and again at Ballard. Kelley graduated in 2002, two years ahead of Trager and Lawrence. Trager has returned to Ballard as the head baseball coach. He invited Kelley, 29, to talk to his Bruins' players during the winter. The New York Times wrote about the trio in this article during spring training.
"Shawn's a great example of a guy who just kept working at it and working at it and made his way to the top level of the game," Trager said. "He's a really determined guy."
Closing games for the Yankees is certainly the top level of the game. Rivera saved 652 games for the Yankees, winning four World Series rings and recognition as the finest relief pitcher ever. Major League Baseball has already announced that the best closer in the American League will be given the Mariano Rivera Award at the end of every season.
David Robertson, a Yankees' veteran, was scheduled to serve as Rivera's replacement. On Monday Robertson moved to the disabled list with a pulled groin muscle. Yankees' manager Joe Girardi waved Kelley in to replace Robertson – and he responded with a perfect ninth inning as New York won its home opener.
Mark it down as the first save of Shawn Kelley's major-league career. He's only 651 behind Rivera.
The game was not as kind to Kelley Wednesday night. He started the ninth inning of a 3-3 tie with the Orioles in Yankee Stadium. Ryan Flaherty opened the inning with a double. Kelley allowed three more hits – all of them hit softly. It did not matter. The Orioles scored twice and won, 5-4, leaving Kelley with the loss.
"Shawn's a battler," Trager said. "He's perfect for the job."
Kelley started battling at Ballard. Trager said Kelley was primarily a reserve as a junior, parked on the bench for a Ballard team that had a pair of dominating starting pitchers – Jeremy and Josh Sowers. Both twins played professional baseball. In fact, Jeremy was a first-round draft pick, who won 18 games for the Cleveland Indians.
Kelley got his chance as a senior but hurt his arm. That limited his scholarship options. The coaches at Austin Peay, in Clarksville, Tenn., recruited Kelley as an infielder and pitcher.
Kelley healed. Professional teams noticed. The Mariners drafted him in the 13th round of the 2007 MLB free-agent draft. Kelley pitched his way to The Show in two seasons. He made his big-league debut in Oakland on April 10, 2009 with gusto, starting the seventh inning by striking out Mark Ellis and finishing it with another strikeout of Jason Giambi, a former MVP.
He pitched four seasons for Seattle before moving to New York in a trade prior to last season. Kelley worked out of the Yankees' bullpen, enjoying the best seat in the house for Rivera's historical farewell tour.
Now Rivera has retired and Robertson is injured. Shawn Kelley, a product of St. Matthews Little League and Ballard High School, is the next man up as the Yankees' closer.
"I've been talking to his Dad (Dennis Kelley), trying to figure out a way to go see Shawn," Trager said. "How can I not go see him now?"