Kevin Kiermaier: One Pitch Away
- Name: Kevin Kiermaier
- Age: 23
- Organization: Tampa Bay Rays, Durham Bulls
(Kevin Kiermaier made his major league debut for the Tampa Bay Rays in their Game 163, wild-card clinching victory over the Texas Rangers. Kiermaier entered to play RF in the 9th inning.)
Author: Patrick Kinas, DNAOfSports.com creator.
With his senior season in high school winding down and no offers to continue playing in college, Kevin Kiermaier’s major league baseball dream was quickly fading into the Indiana summer sunset. That is, until one pitch changed everything. Five years later, Kiermaier no longer lives in obscurity. He has reached Triple-A, and is one final step from the major leagues.
Kevin Kiermaier nearly quit baseball after his sophomore year at Fort Wayne’s Bishop Luers High School. The allure of hanging with his prep friends was ultimately trumped by his passion for baseball. Admittedly, Kiermaier wasn’t the most talented player on the field for the Knights, but the shortstop/pitcher was a tireless worker and undeniable hustler on the field. Off the field, though, Kiermaier wasn’t as driven academically, and his grades suffered.
“I had no offers to play going into my senior year,” Kiermaier said. “I was interested in Ball State and IPFW, but nothing happened. No calls, no follow-ups. I didn’t get accepted at Ball State, so couldn’t even walk on. I didn’t feel any pressure, but didn’t feel any direction either.”
As his senior year was winding down, there were still no offers. With just the high school playoffs remaining, Kiermaier wasn’t quite sure what the next step would be, other than beginning a path toward a criminal justice future, a future he would be content with, albeit reluctantly. College baseball was what he wanted. But college baseball didn’t want him.
Until one pitch changed his future.
The game was the Indiana sectional championship of his senior year against Adams Central. Kiermaier started on the mound and was throwing well. The playoff elimination game was tied 4-4 into extra innings when his prep career nearly ended. “In the top of the 8th, they got a couple of hits, I got a couple of outs, then I hit a guy to load the bases,” Kiermaier recalled. “Then came the one at-bat that could’ve potentially changed my entire life. I went to a 3-2 count and threw a fastball up and away. It would’ve been ball four and walked in the go-ahead run. The batter chased it for strike three.”
The “pitch” that kept Kiermaier’s baseball uniform on. However, the sectional drama wasn’t quite over.
“I end up leading off the bottom of the 8th, and get a base hit. Then it starts raining and the game gets suspended. We had to finish the game the next day. When we resumed, the first pitch was supposed to be a hit-and-run, but I slipped and got thrown out. With two outs, my best buddy Tyler Watts hits a walk-off homer and we win the game. We then blew through regionals, semi-state and won the state championship.”
Parkland College is a junior college in Champaign, IL. Head coach Matt Kennedy had not ever heard of Kiermaier until he saw him play in the semi-state games a week after Bishop Luers’ heroics against Adams Central. If there’s no chase on strike three, Kennedy and Kiermaier’s paths very well would never have crossed and Kiermaier might be a police officer instead.
“In the state championship game, I was the starting pitcher and had been lights-out all year. Then I gave up 8 runs. Thank God our offense came through and we won 14-8. After the game, my coach (Gary Rogers) comes to me and says that there was a junior college coach who wanted to talk to me. It was Coach Kennedy.”
That conversation led to a campus visit two weeks later for both Kiermaier and Watts, and ultimately an offer to play college baseball for which Kiermaier had been praying.
“He asked what I thought about pitching and playing shortstop, but I was moved from to the outfield in the last week of the fall of my freshman year. The throws on the infield were too much on my elbow. After he saw me make a couple of throws from centerfield, I wasn’t sniffing the infield anymore.”
The white lines on the baseball diamond weren’t the only white lines Kiermaier utilized during his career.
“I would run sprints on my own in the dorm parking lots,” Kiermaier said. “There was an area where no cars would park, so I used the lines for my agility drills. No one wanted it as bad as I did. I was an average player in high school, but I started to separate myself in junior college. I outworked everyone. I had to.”
Kiermaier grew up part of a modest, blue-collar, Midwestern family. His father has labored at a local steel – O’Neal Steel - for 11 years, now on the 3rd-shift. His mother works as a hospital administrative assistant. Money has always been tight for the Kiermaier family of five.
“All of my friends took vacations,” Kiermaier said. “We would drive three hours to Lake Michigan for the day, but the hotels were too costly, so we would drive back home at the end of the day. My dad bought me my first car – a 1993 Buick Park Avenue - it probably cost a thousand dollars. I was so pumped for that car. Everyone joked that I was driving the Grandma Boat. It was so long and had so much rust. In college, I had to jump it every day of the winter. It didn’t cooperate in the cold. I would drive it 10 miles up and back to give it a chance to start the next morning. I wouldn’t take dates in that car. I borrowed Watts’ car instead.”
Kiermaier’s vigorous work-ethic, clearly passed down from his parents, began to pay dividends.
His freshman year, he hit .426 with 13 triples and took Parkland to the Division II Junior College World Series in Enid, OK, where they won the championship. Kiermaier was named MVP.
Still, though, draft-eligible after his freshman year, Kiermaier was not chosen.
“My sophomore year, I started to see scouts at my games, and I was asked to fill out these draft questionnaires. The Tampa Bay scout (Tom Couston) seemed to like me more than anyone. So he’s watching me in a game in the fall and tells me after a game ‘I haven’t seen you run enough. I need a time for you to first base.’”
The craziest thing Kiermaier ever did on a baseball field was about to happen.
“At my next game, the Rays scout is there again sitting on the first base line. I draw a walk and jog down to first base. I happen to look over to him and I’m thinking to myself that he still needs a time on me. So my next time up, I walk again. I sprint as fast as I can to first base. I ran all the way through the bag down the right field line. I got back to first base and looked into the stands again, and he gave me a thumbs-up.”
Kiermaier knew that sometimes in junior college, you have to take some ownership for your future, and that 90-foot dash – while very unorthodox by baseball standards – was what he had to do.
Finally, draft day came for Kiermaier. His sophomore year was over, and the day Kiermaier had been waiting for had arrived. Conversations between Kiermaier and teams had taken place, so he was subtly confident that he’d be chosen anywhere between the 8th and 15th rounds. So Kiermaier did what any excited, anxious, soon-to-be professional player would do. He held a draft party with friends to celebrate the moment with him. A group of about 20 come over, and the draft reaches the 8th round. Then the 10th. Then the 15th. Then the 20th. Kiermaier’s name was never called. The party atmosphere changed dramatically. Friends began to leave offering words of encouragement instead of congratulations.
The second day of the draft then ended. Thirty rounds had passed. Kiermaier was still on the board.
The next day – the final day of the 50-round draft – there was no party. No get together. Just Kiermaier in his room, listening on the computer, praying that his name would be called. Finally, in the 31st round, with the 941st pick in the draft, the Tampa Bay Rays selected Kiermaier. He quickly signed and his pursuit began at Rookie-level Princeton, where he hit .303 in his first season.
“There were times I was pretty confident, and there were times where I’ve struggled,” Kiermaier said. “In 2011, I hit .241. I’d have games where I’d strike out three or four times and wonder ‘Man, am I good enough to play at this level?’ I know I’m fast and can play defense with anyone, but can I hit enough? I was changing stances every day, and had trouble making adjustments on my own. I was bad. I was thinking about it dozens of times, questioning myself. Now, I’m much better. I know what I’m doing as far as hitting goes.”
It doesn’t take an expert to see how far Kiermaier has come. His routes to balls in the outfield are pure. He makes highlight-reel catches three times a week. He throws out runners at home plate with regularity. He turns singles into doubles with pure hustle. In 2012, Kiermaier was named the best defensive outfielder in the Tampa Bay organization. In short, he plays the game like he’s on borrowed time. That strike out against Adams Central will always be carried forward in his mind.
One of the other missions Kiermaier has is to honor his parents for all of the long hours and hard labor that they’ve endured to support the three sons.
“I’d love to retire my parents and let them relax for the second part of their life. If I can someday thank them for all they did for me. That would be bigger than making the big leagues.”
Kiermaier was a Double-A All-Star for Montgomery in the first half of 2013, hitting .307 with 28 extra base hits and 14 steals. After a promotion to the Triple-A Durham Bulls, he’s battling through a .238 start through 18 games, while hitting his first AAA home run on August 9th against former major leaguer Jason Berken.
Kiermaier knows what’s it’s like to be one pitch away. He was one pitch away from a career he really didn’t want. He was one pitch away from walking in the losing run in the playoffs. He now finds himself one pitch away from the major leagues.
That’s a pitch that Kevin Kiermaier will never take for granted.
“I may not be the best player on the field, but I take a lot of pride in knowing that no one plays harder than I do.”(Photo Courtesy: Kevin Kiermaier.) Tweet
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