Sunday, October 15, 2017

Pat Kelly recalls the Yankees 1995 post-season heroics

Former Yankees infielder Pat Kelly was in New York recently to help give an assist to the fundraising efforts for the Jason Krause Kick Cancer Scholarship, signing autographs along with his Yankee teammate David Cone at their annual community event. As soon Cone explained to Kelly his endearment for the people who are involved with the organization, he came right on board.

“Andrew Levy our agent discussed it with me,” Kelly said during an interview at the fundraiser. “I discussed it with David Cone who has been here several years and it was something that we all wanted to get involved with and come back to as well.”

Pat Kelly / Yankees
Kelly, who played seven of his nine big league seasons with the Yankees from 1991-1997, helped the Yankees transition from a team mired in mediocrity, to one that would rise to dominate the latter part of the 1990s. He credited the late Gene Michael for being the wise architect of the new Yankees dynasty.

“Stick was the ultimate Yankee utility guy,” he said. “Stick did everything from manage, to coach, to [serve as] general manager. He really put together the Core Four, all of those guys in the early 90s who eventually turned into those great teams that we all know today. … He was fair and honest – a true Yankee.”

While serving as the Yankees primary second baseman from 1992-1995, Kelly had the opportunity to mentor a nubile Derek Jeter. He recalled a spring training encounter with Jeter during his early career that caused him question if the Yankees did the right thing in giving Jeter such a large signing bonus.

“Derek was quite the young lanky skinny sorta guy,” he said “I remember they brought him in 1994 and I was my prime then. I remember myself, Don Mattingly, Wade Boggs, and Mike Gallego sitting at second base and saying, ‘This kid’s never going to make it. They wasted $700,000 because he was just this lean kid.’”

After playing three seasons with Jeter, Kelly quickly changed his tune about their future captain. Taking a moment to reflect on Jeter’s Hall of Fame career, he surmised that he was just proud to be there to help instill the rich Yankee traditions in the young shortstop.

“The projection of the scouts to be able to predict that he was going to be the greatest Yankee that ever played was phenomenal,” he said. “His progression from the young Derek Jeter that we saw in Fort Lauderdale to what he is now is truly amazing. You give credit to Gene Michael; you give credit to us, because we taught him everything, all the stuff about how to be a Yankee. I take a lot of pride that I played with Derek and that a bit of whatever he turned into was because of the Yankee tradition.”

While the Yankees were giving Jeter his first taste of the big leagues in 1995, Kelly helped lead the Yankees to their first playoff appearance since 1981. While Kelly scored the go-ahead run in the 11th inning of Game Five of the American League Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, he is probably best remembered for being on base when Jim Leyritz hit his infamous walk-off home run in the 15th inning of Game Two to put the Yankees ahead 2-0 in the series.

“I just talked to Jim Leyritz about it yesterday,” he said. “It was all because of me I told him, because I walked and they thought I was going to steal. [Tim] Belcher is worried about me stealing, so he wasn’t worried about Jimmy, so it was all my doing. He hit that ball and it was raining. I remember just the feeling of getting goose bumps running around those bases knowing what we were doing. It was a long time since the Yankees had any success in the playoffs. The people just went nuts. What happened after that, you wouldn’t guess, right? The success we had all the way to those World Series after that, it was the start of something good. I was very proud to be a part of it and to get at least one World Series in 1996.”

Kelly battled injuries during the 1996 season, limiting him to only 13 games while the Yankees finally broke through to win the World Series. As exciting as it was for Kelly to be a part of that championship club, little did he imagine just two years later that he would be alongside Mark McGwire as he challenged Babe Ruth’s all-time single season home run record.

Signed as a free agent by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998, Kelly rekindled a long standing friendship with the famed slugger that started when he played alongside another of McGwire’s close friends, Mike Gallego. Kelly detailed how they spent a lot of time together away from the field that most baseball fans aren’t privy to.

“We were great friends before that,” he said. “It came through Mike Gallego. Mark used to come out to eat with us when Gallego played with the Yankees. After Gallego was traded, when Mark was in New York, I hung out with him; that was how the friendship evolved. We would go away with my wife and his girlfriend on holidays. We went to Africa the year before he broke the record. The year he broke the record, we went to Australia because I was living there.”

Being one of McGwire’s confidants on the 1998 Cardinals, Kelly was an eyewitness to the rock star treatment that McGwire received throughout the season. He said it was an unimaginable spectacle for a baseball player.

“Playing with him in 1998, it was like hanging out with Elvis or the Beatles; it was a flash mob all the time,” he said. “When we were in Milwaukee, there was nobody at the bar, just out for a quiet drink. Before you knew it there were 2,000 people there, just like that. It was crazy making history like that.

“As a spectacle, like playing in New York and winning the World Series, it was right up there because it was something you never saw before. He hit two on the last day and we were celebrating the night before and I knew how many [drinks] we had; I couldn’t even see straight, let alone do anything and he hit two home runs that day! It was just a magical season.”

Peeling back the curtain of his wild ride with McGwire in 1998, he recalled that McGwire was able to put on his game face every day, but not without enduring the pressure that came with the increasing media attention.

“Every day he worried about it; he worried about losing the home run race,” Kelly said. “He didn’t want to lose to Sammy Sosa. The stress that he was going through physically he didn’t show it like Roger Maris with his hair falling out, but the stress was there. Every day we were together and he did intimate to me that it was stressful for him. Tony LaRussa was the one who made him that comfortable. We had a pretty good team. We were all there for Mark; we were doing everything for him.”

Kelly capped his major league career with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1999 and quickly moved to Australia in 2000. He has since worked as an international scout for the Dodgers, helping their operations in the Pacific Rim. It was a career move that he made sure that he took care of before leaving the United States.

“I married an Australian girl, moved there in 2000, and stepped into scouting,” he said. “I set myself up before I left, as I knew the writing was on the wall. I talked to the Dodgers and I’ve been there 16-17 years now. They have a league down there that is good and they bring former players in and I see the kids that progressed, the American minor leaguers that get to the majors and the handful of Australians too. The biggest thing that I’ve seen is the Asian market booming, the Japanese players that get posted and signed. I helped to sign Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu for over $60 million.”

So who does Kelly think is the next big star that will come from Japan? He quickly singled out two-way player Shohei Otani, who is blessed with a 100-MPH fastball and a bat that carried him to over a .300 average for the Nippon Ham Fighters during the past two seasons in the Japan Pacific League. His success comes as little surprise to Kelly, who has watched Otani since he was in high school. The larger quandary Otani presents for MLB executives is how they can take advantage of both his powerful bat and pitching arm.

“I saw him as a 15-year old,” he said. “He can hit and pitch. He was 15, hitting and pitching! I told the guy I was working for that I didn’t know if he was a hitter or a pitcher because he’s that good at both. How do you deal with that as a general manager? He’s 0-4, but he pitched okay; how do you manage that when taking him out? It’s going to be a logistical nightmare dealing with it as a manger to deal with the Monday morning quarterbacking. It will be interesting to see how it goes.”

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