A View from Studio 3: Kennedy aces without flash
Facing former team in Bronx, unheralded D-backs righty reflects on career
He stared down his opponent. Like he has thousands of times. Perhaps this time there was some added pressure because his family was there to watch. Ian Kennedy knew full well that this matchup included great risk, but also a chance for great reward. It was a moment he's envisioned his entire life. Shutting out all distractions, he let go. In an instant, Kennedy knew it was hit very well. Good wood. Very good wood. And just like that, the ball was gone. Overwhelming frustration followed. Just another souvenir, he thought. Maddening. An empty feeling he's felt before. But in a New York Minute, the emotional pendulum swung the opposite way.
Kennedy's brother-in-law yelled, "What ball did you hit?" Laughs followed. Then screaming. And high fives all around. The Ace finally had his first ace. A hole in one. On a par 4, no less. Looking back months later, Kennedy chuckled, "Of course it was on a par 4, so I didn't even see it go in the hole."
If this story involved a baseball star of greater recognition, it may have gone viral. Cellphone video would miraculously appear. TV interviews would follow. And, perhaps, an invitation to a high-end pro-am would arrive in the mail.
But this is about Ian Kennedy. If you know anything about the California native, you know that's just not his style.
Thousands of miles and months removed from that beautiful moment in Kauai, Hawaii, the Diamondbacks righty is at Yankee Stadium for an Interleague series. Much to his dismay, he won't get to face his former club. It's his first trip to the Bronx since 2009, when a monster three-team trade landed the former Yankees hurler in Arizona. The career path of the former first-round Draft pick out of UCLA was altered.
"It was bittersweet. I loved being a Yankee and loved playing in New York," Kennedy said. But added, "My parents and friends and family were happy to see me go to the West Coast. It's really close for them to see me play. I'm West Coast biased. I love it out there. I love playing for the Diamondbacks now, so it's just two great organizations."
Two organizations with vastly different personalities. One is an international brand -- as recognizable as Coca Cola. The other is an expansion team whose greatest moment came, coincidentally, against the Yankees. But that was more than a decade ago. In recent years, the Diamondbacks, while talented and exciting, often go unnoticed in their own division. That suits Kennedy and his under-the-radar personality perfectly.
"We kind of like that," he said. "Everyone is talking about the Giants. They have that right. They've earned that right. And also the Dodgers -- with what they've done with management, with ownership, and they've revamped everybody and have the highest payroll now. We'll take that and fly under the radar, and hopefully we'll be the ones on top at the end of the year."
So humble and unassuming is Kennedy that he returns to the Big Apple looking for autographs of his former teammates -- guys he believes will end up in Cooperstown: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte. But instead of asking the "big three" for an autographed jersey, Kennedy bought replicas and carried them across the country.
"I am blessed and lucky to have played with those guys," he said. "And to have them hanging up, I get to say they're not just Hall of Famers, but I got to play with those guys."
Kennedy did more than play with Pettitte. He learned from him -- by watching him on and off the field. Both are men of great faith and quiet intensity.
"Andy really took me under his wing," Kennedy said. "I watched him every day conduct himself in a manner I wanted to model myself after. I don't know if he knows that, but he helped me in that way and to mature at a young age, when I was 22 or 23 at the time."
A few years later, Kennedy's career took off. You could track his breakout season of 2011 back to April 25 of that year. That was the day two special events took place in a span of a few hours. Weary and drained and working with almost no sleep, Kennedy pitched the best game of his Major League career. His first shutout was completed just hours after the birth of his first daughter. It was national news and the beginning of a brilliant season. Fittingly baseball and family came together.
Now 28 years old, Kennedy is one of the most reliable starters in the National League. Since the beginning of 2011, he's tied with former Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw for the most wins in the NL. In that same time period, Kennedy ranks second, behind Kershaw, in starts and innings pitched. And in typical Kennedy fashion, there's little hype and fanfare.
"On the field, I try to be the best I can," he said. "I'm not super flashy. I don't have Twitter. For me, I just try to be home with my family. I view myself as a normal guy that loves kids, his family, loves God and happens to be really good at baseball."
Matt Yallof is the co-host of The Rundown on MLB Network from 2-4 p.m. ET. Follow him on twitter @mattyallofmlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.