Former Ballard pitcher Shawn Kelley has overcome two elbow surgeries to become the Yankees' closer.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Some stories are so enchanting they should be told twice. The story of Shawn Kelley's journey from a reserve pitcher at Ballard High School to the New York Yankees' closer qualifies.
"It's been a long road but I wouldn't change it for anything in the world," Kelley said by telephone from New York City.
"Not just to be pitching for the Yankees. I try to be thankful every day just to be able to be on a major-league field throwing a baseball."
On Thursday I wrote about how Kelley, 29, had moved into the most difficult job in baseball, replacing Mariano Rivera as the Yankees' closer. Kelley secured his place in trivia contests forever by becoming the guy to earn the first save of the Post-Mariano Era in Yankee Stadium Monday against Baltimore.
"If they would have told me that before I went out to pitch, I would have never gotten it done," Kelley said, with a laugh. "I'm glad they waited."
But Kelley's story is more than statistics and stepping forward to replace David Robertson, the guy who had won the job as Yankees' closer until a pulled groin muscle pushed Robertson to the disabled list.
Follow the vital signs of his career. There isn't much to suggest that in April 2014 Kelley would be first in line to do the job Rivera did for 17 seasons.
Except for Kelley's unshakable determination, of course.
"Shawn's always believed in himself and he's always been willing to work," said Kelley's father, Dennis, a businessman in Louisville.
That's not just Dad being Dad. That is Dennis Kelley remembering the days when his son would drag his wife, Rhonda, into the backyard with a catcher's mitt, ask her to flash signs and practice pitching.
"They did that for many years," Dennis Kelley said. "Finally my wife came into the house and told me I had to take over. She couldn't do it any more because Shawn threw too hard."
Kelley was an all-star at St. Matthews Little League who later played at Ballard. He made the varsity as an underclassman but did not pitch until his senior season because Ballard was packed with future pros like Jeremy and Josh Sowers.
"They were one year ahead of me," Kelley said. "They were great players. When you only play two or three games a week, those two threw most of the innings.
"When I was a senior I was hoping I would get my chance for exposure so I could show the scouts and college coaches what I could do."
Kelley wanted to play for the University of Louisville. He signed with Austin Peay.
Louisville never offered a scholarship. Why? Kelley missed part of his senior season with a shoulder injury.
Austin Peay was thrilled to have Kelley. He earned a spot in the starting rotation during fall practice – and then lost it during his first start. This time it was his right elbow. It required a visit to the legendary Dr. James Andrews, who performed the operation pitchers call "Tommy John" surgery.
"I threw a fastball and felt something not feel right," Kelley said. "I snapped a ligament. The pain isn't really the issue. It's more of a matter of staying positive, doing all your rehab and being patient."
Kelley did the work and followed the plan, giving Austin Peay four solid seasons. The Seattle Mariners drafted him in the 13th round of the 2007 Major League Baseball free agent draft.
History shows that only 11 percent of all players taken in rounds 11-20 make the big leagues. The record also shows that only 3 of the 30 guys taken in the 13th round with Kelley in 2007 have made the majors.
"When you're a fifth-year college player taken in the 13th round, you really don't get any signing bonus," Kelley said. "When they don't invest any money in you, you don't get too many opportunities."
Kelley pitched like he was double-parked. He moved from rookie ball to low Class A ball in 2007. He jumped from low A to high Class A to Class AA in 2008 – and then spent his winter in Venezuela.
In 2009, less than two full seasons after Seattle drafted him, Shawn Kelley made his major-league debut. He pitched in the big leagues all year and was primed for bigger things in 2010.
But then something happened to his elbow that is not supposed to happen to surgically repaired elbows. It went bad again. Kelley tried to proceed with rehabilitation. It didn't work. He scheduled exploratory surgery with Dr. Lewis Yocum in Los Angeles. When Kelley woke up, he was informed that his elbow had been rebuilt again.
The odds of recovering from one Tommy John operation are about 85 percent. Coming back from two?
"About 30 percent," Kelley said.
"Shawn has always set goals and tried to achieve them," Dennis Kelley said.
This qualifies as achieving your goal: Kelley returned to the Mariners to pitch nearly 13 innings without giving up a run in 2011. He pitched in a career high 47 games in 2012 before Seattle traded him to the Yankees.
What a wonderful time to work in the Yankees' bullpen. Kelley had a front-row seat for the Mariano Rivera Farewell Tour last season. Now he has a similar seat for the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour this summer.
"Mariano gave you the footprint for what you needed to do," Kelley said. "He wasn't going to be able to teach you how to throw his cutter because nobody will ever be able to do that.
"But he guided you in the ways that he was able to keep himself calm and relaxed. If you try to do things the way he did them, you'll be a better player and better person."
Monday was Kelley's 181st appearance as a major-league pitcher. It was also the first save opportunity of his career. And he delivered – just the way Mariano Rivera delivered for the Yankees for 17 seasons.