It was the top of the 6th inning. The game was well in hand. Kelly had had no small part in assuring victory, having launched a majestic three run homer two innings ago. That mattered little at the moment, as he found himself facing a Freddy Galvis grounder. Third base was such unfamiliar territory. By all rights, he shouldn’t be here right now, staring down a batted ball from the dirt of the infield. He was in unfamiliar territory. But it hadn’t always been this way.
It was the top of the 8th inning. A young 23 year old sat perched on the top step of the dugout. A few feet away, Marcus Giles took a hearty cut at a Kip Wells offering, missing, as seven other Braves would that day. As the young man stepped out towards the on deck circle, the events of the last week ran through his mind.
“You’re better than this, dammit,” he muttered to himself. The first few days of his major league career had been a trial. Here he sat, 0 for his career, a mere 19 plate appearances old. Sure, he had taken a few walks, but this was Atlanta, not Oakland. He had to hit, and as ball after ball was gloved his confidence waned. He had been a first round pick, a prodigious talent, and an infielder, too. He’d played a lot of outfield in the last year, but after a lifetime spent around the second base bag, left field felt foreign. He felt lost. But no—he wouldn’t use his discomfort as an excuse. After all, noted transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau once said that it’s, “not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.”
As Pete Orr stroked an opposite field single to left, Kelly took one last swing in the on deck circle, released the doughnut from the shaft of his bat, and strode to the plate.
It was the top of the 6th inning. Kelly stared across the diamond towards Freddy Galvis at first as the grounder he misplayed trickled to a stop. Of all the events of his career that confounded him, perhaps his descent from top prospect to journeyman weighed most heavily upon him. Like the grounder that had clanged off his glove, his career was launched with promise and expectations. And as he grabbed the resting ball and tossed it back to Shelby Miller he realized that he too had stalled, destined to wind up back where it all began so many years before. In between his arrival and his return he had found both wild success and the deepest of valleys: an All-Star in Arizona, and a journeyman on a mission to collect the cap of every AL East team in 2014.
Shelby took a firm grip on the ball and delivered from the stretch. Cody Asche hit it firmly, but right to Jace at second base. He fielded it so naturally. Picked from the air with the grace and simplicity of a young Ozzie Smith, a young Roberto Alomar—a young Kelly Johnson.
It was the top of the 8th inning. Kelly strode up to the plate to face the unassailable Kip Wells for the fourth time today. He’d seen all he had to offer. There was no way he’d get him again. Hell, this guy wasn’t even that good. Kip checked over his shoulder at Pete at first base, and proceeded to unleash an offering towards Kelly that lanced the corner of the zone for strike one. It would be the last called strike Kip Wells got that day. After taking ball one, Kelly slid back into the box, hands calm—coiled—ready to pounce on the next mediocre pitch he saw.
Wells delivered. Kelly swung.
The ball lurched forward with the crack of the bat, less like a rocket and more like a dying raccoon, limping its way out toward the right side of the infield. Kelly ran.
It should be known that Jose Castillo is not known for very many things, if he is known for anything at all. But of all of the things that could be misconstrued as Jose Castillo’s claim to fame, defense was most certainly not one of them. The combination of Castillo’s futile attempt at baseballing and Kelly’s hustle would land KJ on first base. Kelly smiled wryly, wearily at Daryl Ward. It wasn’t a homer, a gapper, or even a particularly well struck ball. But as he stood on first, he knew his journey towards immortality had begun in earnest. He had his first major league hit.
It was the bottom of the 6th inning. The game was well in hand. Kelly had had no small part in assuring victory, having launched a majestic three run homer two innings ago. That mattered little at the moment, as he found himself leading off against something called an Elvis Araujo. He knew the scouting report, knew that the kid’s control—it was generous calling it even that—was questionable at best. He probably wouldn’t see anything to hit. He’d likely head into the next day parked on 999 career hits. “1000 is such an arbitrary landmark, a nice round number for old fools and fan-boys to point to and say, “what a nice career…he made something of himself,” he thought. Still, his torrid hitting for the past few days and for most of the season belied the weight he carried out to the field every day.
Kelly stepped up to the plate, knowing his chance at immortality had come and passed. He was 33 years old. He could walk, and he had some pop, but he’d never be the star he was meant to be. He had traveled from Atlanta to Arizona to Toronto and all up and down the Eastern seaboard. He had traveled from the infield to the outfield and back again. As he reflected on the career that never was, of a legacy that was never fulfilled, his mind harkened back to a quote from noted traveler Henry David Thoreau:
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”
Ball one, ball two….
The glove popped and the umpire signaled strike.
“Maybe the kid will give me something to hit, after all,” he thought, “maybe this is my eternity.”
Elvis unleashed a fastball that rode in on his hands. Kelly took a mighty cut, launching a dying quail into the outfield. As Ben Revere pulled up and the ball landed safely on the outfield grass, Kelly found himself next to the grossly overpaid Ryan Howard at first base, and much as the weight of the world was lifted off his shoulders as he stood next to Daryl Ward some ten years ago, so too was he unburdened now.
Kelly Johnson has hit the piss out of the ball so very many times over the course of his career. He’s hit 137 home runs, 207 doubles, and 40 triples. He’s hit gappers, sharp grounders, and line drives. And 998 of those fell for hits in between a squibber that barely made it to second base and a Texas leaguer that dropped innocuously in right center field.
The fans politely cheered and clapped for their prodigal son. For Kelly, it was such unfamiliar territory. By all rights, he shouldn’t be here right now, standing on first base basking in applause. It hadn’t always been this way. But that was irrelevant. He mulled over something noted baseball fan Henry David Thoreau had said long ago:
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”
And Kelly Johnson had become immortal. Kelly Johnson had become a legend.