To anyone else, it looked like a routine spring training appearance. A quick inning of work on one of dozens of indistinguishable Grapefruit League afternoons.
For Ryan Kelly, it was the biggest game of his life, because as far as he knew, it might be his last.
Three days later, Kelly had surgery to remove his cancerous thyroid, an ailment that was discovered during a routine physical just days earlier.
Kelly thought it might be the end of his long journey through professional baseball, but it turned into a beginning of a new, more fruitful quest that culminated with his long-awaited arrival in the big leagues.
THE ‘C’ WORD
When Kelly reported to spring training with the Atlanta Braves in February 2014, he did so with realistic hopes it was his time to reach the big leagues. The former Hilton Head Island High School star had pitched well at Triple-A Tucson in the San Diego Padres organization the previous season and signed a free-agent contract with the Braves in the offseason.
A month later, he was more concerned with his health than the status of his baseball career. He learned that March that he had thyroid cancer, and the road to the majors suddenly looked longer and more treacherous than ever.
There were complications during surgery, followed by weeks of radioactive iodine treatments. Kelly missed two months, an eternity for someone who can’t stand being on the disabled list, and began his season at Single-A Lynchburg, a long way from the majors. It took the full season for him to get back to full strength, and he was assigned to play in the Puerto Rican Winter League for the first time in his career to get in some of the work he missed.
“People think I’m crazy when I say it, but it was one of the best things that ever happened for me in my life,” Kelly says, noting the thyroid cancer had been the source of his difficulty staying at his optimum weight and maintaining his stamina.
More than that, though, it offered a dose of perspective. The notion that his baseball career might be over — as frustrating as it had sometimes been — provided added motivation.
“This is all I know,” Kelly said. “For there to be a chance for me to have that taken away, it hit me pretty deep. I wasn’t ready to give up playing. It completely changed that side of it. It made the game easier, because I had a lot less to worry about.
“It became fun again.”
LEARNING TO PITCH
That winter in Puerto Rico wound up being pivotal to Kelly’s development. He experimented with “pitching backward” — starting at-bats with off-speed pitches to keep hitters guessing and disrupt their timing — and learned to pitch inside more. The lessons he picked up carried over to the next spring.
Kelly began the 2015 season at Double-A Mississippi and was dominant. In his first 17 appearances, he posted a 0.48 ERA and 10 saves while holding opponents to a .197 batting average, earning a promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. He was nearly as dominant there, going 1-1 with five saves and a 2.13 ERA in 10 outings.
“What got me that far was God-given talent — I was lucky enough to be able to throw hard and had good stuff, and that kind of carried me through,” Kelly said. “When I finally learned how to pitch, which probably took me longer than I’d care to admit, that’s when I really started to have success.”
On June 27, 2015, more than nine years after the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him in 26th round of the 2006 MLB Draft, Kelly got the call. He was going to The Show. The next afternoon, Kelly was in the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen — in Pittsburgh, oddly enough — eager for his big-league debut.
After an arduous nine-year trek to the bigs, Kelly had to wait two more days for his moment. With a group of family and friends cheering from the stands, Kelly ran in from the Turner Field bullpen on June 30 to face the heart of the Washington Nationals’ lineup.
Yunel Escobar greeted Kelly with a seeing-eye single through the middle, and then came his welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment. Bryce Harper, one of the brightest young stars in the game, roped a first-pitch single into right field. Kelly recovered nicely, getting a double-play grounder and a swinging strikeout to escape with only one run and elicit a celebration among his cheering section.
In hindsight, Kelly didn’t relish the moment as much as he would have liked.
“I was trying to keep my cool so much that I think I kind of brought myself down further than I would like to be,” Kelly said. “I didn’t want to let the bright lights and the fans and everything get involved with my outing. I didn’t really get to soak in everything.”
For the journey that led him so many places — from Hilton Head to Walters State Community College in Tennessee, to minor-league stops in Florida, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Myrtle Beach, Arizona, San Antonio, Oregon, Virginia, Mississippi and Puerto Rico — to wind up in Atlanta, where so many friends and family could make the short trip to see it in person, made it all the more rewarding.
“When I first got the call, I was overwhelmed with joy,” Kelly said. “Not just for myself, but my family, everyone that’s been on the journey with me. It’s been just as tough a road for them as it has been for me.
“It was definitely everything that I thought it would be.”