Former Austin Peay pitcher Shawn Kelley is arguably the most significant athlete to come from the Ohio Valley Conference.
However, due in part to injuries and an interest in political science, the former Governors’ Major League Baseball career nearly never happened.
“For me, it was like it was going to be my last time,” said Kelley on his final start as a Gov. Kelley would infamously pitch in the 2007 super regional against top-ranked Vanderbilt. “I hadn’t really talked to many scouts or had any vision of playing pro baseball professionally until after that game. For me, that was kind of ‘This could be it, go out there and have fun’. I knew we had a really good team, I knew some of (the players) were a little nervous on the inside but I tried to just shoulder it and say ‘I’m going to do whatever I have to do.’”
The ’07 OVC pitcher of the year would do just that: tossing 10 innings in what Kelley described as “the game of his life”, allowing just one earned run while striking out nine. The performance would earn the hurler interest to play in the major leagues, where he was taken in the 13th round by the Seattle Mariners.
Kelley would work quickly through the Mariners’ minor league system, being promoted to make his major league debut just two years after being drafted.
After four successful years in Seattle, the APSU athletics HOF-er would be traded to the New York Yankees in exchange for Abraham Almonte. Kelley was at first offset by the trade to the Yanks but has since grown accustomed to the business side of the League.
“I think initially when you get that first major league trade, it’s a little weird: its like, ‘Do the Yankees really want me, or did the Mariners not?’ Once when you go through that first experience…I wouldn’t go any other way about it. I loved all the teams, I was very fortunate to have great managers and great players, even on the teams that didn’t do great. It was a whirlwind and 11 more years than I ever thought I would.”
Kelley pitched well in the Bronx, playing over 116 games in two seasons for the Yankees.
After a short stint in San Diego, the pitcher would have stops in Washington, Oakland, and Texas.
Despite two Tommy John surgeries and over 10 different trips to the injured list in the Majors, Kelley never let the setbacks stop him from competing at a high level.
“Stubbornly I wouldn’t take no. A lot of guys don’t have a lot of success stories coming back from a second Tommy John, especially at the age that I had it at…If there was a day where if I had to go in and pitch in my situation or my role and get the job done and I didn’t feel good, I would just think that I’m playing with house money: I’m already further than I ever thought I would be so let’s just let it go. Honestly, that would help me throw a little bit harder.”
Kelley owns an impressive career 3.80 earned run average throughout his 11-year career and is only one of nine APSU players to log service time at the highest level.
“Everyone has their own story,” Kelley said. “Mine worked out for the best and I did more in the game than I ever thought I would do. I was just having fun with some kids in high school, and I was blessed enough to where it would get me a degree and then obviously a lot further.”
For Kelley, the most memorable moments in the League went far beyond the game itself. “A lot of my favorite memories don’t even have to deal with me. I got to play with Ken Griffey Jr. who’s a childhood idol of mine, I got to be his teammate and his friend. I got to play with (Derek) Jeter and see his farewell tour and got to see Mariano Rivera’s farewell tour. I’ve gotten to play and become close friends with C.C. Sabathia, Max Scherzer, and Bryce Harper. For me, it’s the relationships and the people that are deeper than just stats or a game here and there.”
Despite remaining unsigned throughout the offseason, Kelley remains unbothered with the future of the upcoming spring. The former Ranger told MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan in an interview last season that if he were not resigned by Texas, he was going to call it quits.
“(The offseason) has been very laid back and relaxing, because I haven’t stressed one ounce about what’s going to happen to me or what my career is going to do. I’ve been listening, I’ve since gone back on that statement and have talked to a few other teams, just to see if there was any interest. I don’t have a crystal ball, but as of right now it’s looking like I’m going to be spending more time in Tennessee, which is perfectly fine with me. If something happens, then something happens.”
Kelley recently visited baseball coach Travis Janssen and the Bat Govs during a practice before their opening series against Eastern Michigan. The pitcher has high aspirations for the team this year and hopes to be in attendance for at least a few of this season’s games.
“I know that they’ve got a lot of young guys that are supposed to be pretty good. They’ll have a lot of tough decisions when it comes to young guys and veterans leaders; the young guys are competing for their job. That’s good though, you want the competition, and it makes everybody for the better. I’m looking forward to them having a good year and for cheering them on in the stands a few times.”