As a high-school baseball player in talent-rich Southern California, Mike Kelly was a late bloomer and didn’t get a lot of attention from the Division I college baseball programs in the area.
“I had a good senior year,” Kelly said, “but none of the local schools, the USCs, the UCLAs or the Cal State Fullertons, had any interest in me. I got no offers from any of those schools.”1
Kelly would go on to put together one of the most memorable college baseball careers.
Michael Raymond Kelly was born to Ben and Betty Kelly in Los Angeles on June 2, 1970, and grew up in the Orange County suburb of Los Alamitos.
“Some of my earliest memories are of playing Wiffle Ball with my dad in the back yard,” Kelly said. “I don’t even know how old I was. My parents have been there since Day One. They were at every game in Little League. Every game in high school. They would drive out to see me play at (college). They’ve always been there.”2
Kelly’s high-school season got the attention of at least one major college program.
The Los Alamitos Griffins went 12-14 in Kelly’s junior year (1987). In 1988 the Griffins and Kelly blossomed. He hit .486 as the Griffins improved to 21-7. Kelly was named first-team All-Orange County by the Orange County Register and third-team All-CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) Southern Section 5-A Division.
“(Arizona State coach) Jim Brock came out to see me play,” said Kelly. “I think it was an all-star game. I hit a home run that game. He congratulated me on the home run and all that. I ended up getting a scholarship to ASU.”3
After the season, Kelly was selected in the 24th round of the amateur draft by the New York Mets. That would cause Brock some concern.
Kelly had until the first day of fall classes at Arizona State to accept the Mets’ reported offer of $70,000. On August 24 he attended the first day of classes, meaning he could not sign with the Mets. That was a relief to Brock; five members of Kelly’s recruiting class had already signed professional contracts.
Kelly and fellow Orange County products Tommy Adams, who turned down a reported $90,000 offer from the Atlanta Braves, and Jim Austin, who had been drafted by the Kansas City Royals, showed for the first day of the fall semester at Arizona State.
“You look at their athletic ability and project it two or three years down the road and it’s pretty exciting,” said Brock.4
From the start of his freshman season, Kelly stood out. In nine games during the Sun Devils’ fall practice schedule, Kelly hit .361, second-best on the team.
The Sun Devils, ranked fifth in the 1989 preseason poll by Baseball America, opened their 1989 season in early January by playing seven games in Taiwan. Kelly hit .400 with two home runs and seven RBIs as the Sun Devils went 5-2 to earn the championship of the International Baseball Invitational in Taichung City.
Kelly’s potential was on display from the start. On March 28, in the Sun Devils’ 7-6 loss to Washington State in the Riverside (California) Invitational, Kelly hit a home run that traveled an estimated 475 feet. The home run, his ninth of the season, cleared a 40-foot screen above the left-field fence.
In ASU’s 3-2 victory over California in Tempe on April 23, Kelly hit a “drive to center (that) was still rising when it hit about one foot from the top of the 30-foot-high batter’s eye in center field, 400 feet from home plate.”5
For the season, Kelly batted .300 with 10 home runs and 56 RBIs in 58 games and was named a second-team All-American as the Sun Devils went 42-19.
His sophomore season was better. He hit .376 with 21 home runs and 82 RBIs in 68 games – the Sun Devils were 52-16 – to earn Pac-10 Player of the Year honors, and he was a consensus National Player of the Year.
Besides his offense, Kelly’s sophomore season was highlighted by two memorable catches.
On May 12, with the Sun Devils leading Arizona 4-2 in the sixth inning in Tucson, Arizona’s Jack Johnson hit a long drive to center with two runners on and two outs. Kelly raced to the fence at the 400-foot mark and leaped and caught the ball above the fence to preserve the Sun Devils’ lead in an eventual 6-4 victory.
Asked if Kelly’s catch was the best he had seen in his 19 seasons as ASU coach, Brock said, “College, pro, any form of baseball – it was the best. We’ve had guys reach over the fence before, but never with such an impact on a game. And he made one earlier in the game that can stand on its own merits. It was just about as good as you’ll see.”6
Kelly had made a sparkling catch earlier in the season. In a 9-5 loss to Texas in Austin on February 11, with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth, Kelly ran down a line drive near the warning track in right-center.
As a junior in 1991, Kelly hit .373 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs to repeat as an All-American. Later in the year he was named the 1991 Golden Spikes Award winner as the top amateur baseball player in the nation.
In three seasons for the Sun Devils, Kelly hit .350 with 46 home runs (third-best in ASU history behind Bob Horner’s 56 and Jeff Larish’s 51) and 194 RBIs (sixth-best). He stole 59 bases in 68 attempts.
On June 3, 1991, the day after his 21st birthday, Kelly didn’t have to wait long to hear his name announced. Seven minutes after the draft began – with the New York Yankees selecting high-school pitcher Brien Taylor with the first pick – the Atlanta Braves chose Kelly.
“It’s true we’ve always leaned to high-school kids,” Braves director of player development and scouting Chuck LaMar said. “However, this is a unique individual. Mike is still improving. Usually in college, what you see is what you get. But in Mike Kelly’s case, he’s a collegiate player who has not reached his potential. We had 14 different people, over 30 games, look at him. We wanted to see him on the road, at home, under the lights and in the daytime.”7
Talks between Kelly and the Braves took seven weeks before Kelly agreed to a reported package of $625,000 on July 22.
“It’s taken a while for us to get this thing worked out,” Kelly said, “but it has come together just fine. Both sides are happy about how it turned out. I’m thrilled about the opportunity to make this goal of mine to play professional baseball come true. This has been one of if not the most exciting times in my life. As soon as I meet the players and the coaches, I’m sure things will begin to settle down.”8
The Braves were pleased with Kelly’s signing. “Obviously we feel he has an outstanding future because of the way he approaches the game both physically and mentally,” said LaMar. “He’s a combination of speed and power that we want to build our major-league club around.”9
Kelly joined the Braves in Pittsburgh for two days of workouts before being assigned to Durham of the Class-A Carolina League. After a slow start (1-for-10, 5 K’s), he hit .250 with 6 home runs and 17 RBIs in 35 games.
Kelly was invited to Atlanta spring training as a nonroster player in 1992. But in the first week of camp, during a routine physical examination, a growth was found in his groin area. The growth – a benign tumor – was removed surgically and Kelly was sidelined until March 24.
He was assigned to Greenville of the Double-A Southern League. In 133 games, he batted .229 with 25 home runs and 71 RBIs. Greenville, whose roster included Chipper Jones and Javy Lopez, was 100-43.
Kelly was invited to spring training again in 1993. He played sparingly, batting .200 with one RBI in five games before being sent to the Braves’ minor-league camp. Kelly spent the 1993 season with Richmond of the Triple-A International League. In 123 games, he batted .243 with 19 home runs and 58 RBIs.
Kelly went into spring training in 1994 battling Jarvis Brown for the final spot on the Braves’ 25-man Opening Day roster. The Braves were looking for an outfielder to fill the roster spot that opened after Ron Gant suffered a broken leg, which sidelined him all season.
Kelly had a good spring, hitting .400 with two home runs and seven RBIs, and sealed his spot on the roster in the Braves’ 7-5 exhibition victory over the Baltimore on April 1 in Atlanta. Kelly went 2-for-4 and in the third inning banged into the wall in left-center while making a catch of a drive hit by the Orioles’ Chris Hoiles.
“It felt great. I was pumped,” said Kelly. “I didn’t expect to be with this club out of spring training. But when Chipper (Jones) got hurt. I got a chance. They told me in West Palm I’d made the club. I couldn’t make myself believe it until I got to the stadium and saw my uni hanging there. And when I stepped out on the field this morning, I finally felt like a big leaguer.”10
In the Braves’ final exhibition game, Kelly scored the winning run in a 4-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox in Atlanta. The victory gave the Braves a 20-7 spring-training record, their best since moving to Atlanta.
The Braves opened the season with a seven-game road trip to the West Coast and won all seven. Kelly played a key role in three of the victories.
On April 5, the second game of the season, Kelly made his major-league debut. He entered the game in the bottom of the sixth inning as a defensive replacement for left fielder Ryan Klesko. In his first major-league at-bat, in the eighth inning against Padres reliever A.J. Sager, he popped out to second base.
On April 7 Kelly ran for Klesko in the ninth inning and scored the tying run. In the 11th inning, facing Sager again, he doubled to left for his first major-league hit. Kelly scored the go-ahead run on David Justice’s single in the Braves’ 10-8 victory over the Padres.
On April 9 Kelly again entered a game as a pinch-runner, scoring the winning run on a single by Jeff Blauser in the Braves’ 2-1 victory over the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
Kelly got his first three major-league RBIs when he delivered a bases-loaded double in the eighth inning to break a 6-6 tie in the Braves’ 9-6 victory over the Marlins on April 26 in Miami. The double – his fourth of the season – lifted his batting average to .250 in 20 at-bats.
Over the next week, Kelly, who was platooning with Klesko in left field, went 0-for-7. On May 4, the Braves sent him to Richmond. “I would love to keep playing him up here, but I can’t justify playing him once every seven or days,” said Cox.12
Kelly said, “It is probably the best thing for me to go down and get some at-bats.”13 He was recalled on July 8.
On July 18, Kelly’s first major-league home run lifted the Braves to a 3-2 victory over the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Kelly, who was 3-for-4 for his first multiple-hit game in the majors, led off the seventh inning with a home run to left-center off Steve Cooke to break a 2-2 tie.
Kelly’s final major-league games of the season were memorable. He went 6-for-14 in a three-game series (August 9-11) in Colorado. In the Braves’ 13-0 victory on August 11, he went 4-for-6 with a double and two RBIs. It was the final day of the season, as the Major League Baseball Players Association went on strike.
But Kelly’s season wasn’t over. On August 12, he was optioned to Richmond.
Kelly finished the season in Richmond. For the season, he hit .262 with 15 home runs and 45 RBIs in 82 games with Richmond. In 30 games with Atlanta, Kelly batted .273 with 2 home runs, and 9 RBIs. With 13 of his 21 hits for extra bases, he had a slugging percentage of .506.
Spring training was delayed in 1995 before the players and owners reached a settlement on April 2. Kelly had a quiet spring, hitting one home run in the Braves’ 11 exhibition games. When the regular season opened on April 26, he was on the Braves’ roster.
On Opening Day in Atlanta, Kelly was the Braves’ starting left fielder against San Francisco Giants left-hander Terry Mulholland. He platooned with Klesko in left field, then was sent to Richmond on August 11 after the Braves acquired outfielder Luis Polonia from the New York Yankees. Kelly was hitting .194 with 46 strikeouts in 129 at-bats.
“Mike needs the at-bats, it’s as simple as that,” said Cox.15
Kelly got off to a slow start in Richmond, but over the final three weeks of the International League regular season, he went 11-for-30 to finish with a .289 average in 15 games for Richmond.
After Richmond’s playoff series was over, Kelly joined the Braves on September 10 in Miami and doubled as a pinch-hitter in the Braves’ 5-4 loss in 11 innings to the Marlins. It was his only hit in the final three weeks of the regular season; he played in 12 games as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement and went 1-for-8 with one RBI. Overall, in 97 games with the Braves, he hit .190 with 3 home runs and 17 RBIs.
In the final week of the regular season, the Braves asked Kelly to play winter ball, and he went to Venezuela. In late November, after hitting just .217 in 19 games, Kelly abruptly ended his season and returned to the United States.
On January 9, 1996, the Braves traded Kelly to the Cincinnati Reds for minor-league pitcher Chad Fox and a player to be named.
According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Kelly … had fallen out of favor with the club over the last season, especially last month when he abruptly left his winter league team in Venezuela. He will have a chance to play regularly for the Reds – the club lost left fielder Ron Gant and backup Jerome Walton to free agency.”16
“I left Venezuela because I was sick the whole time and losing weight and it was hurting my performance,” said Kelly. “I wanted to be traded. Atlanta has a lot of great players and breaking into that lineup was no easy task.”17
“He has not had much of an opportunity with the structure of our club,” said Schuerholz. “It was disappointing that he left (winter ball). I wish he would have stayed and worked at it hard.”18
Kelly made a quick impression in the Reds training camp, hitting three home runs in his first 10 spring-training at-bats, and late in spring training was given a vote of confidence by Reds manager Ray Knight.
Said Kelly: “He just came over and said, ‘Mike, you know you’re going to be my center fielder. I’m going to just let you go out there and play and probably give you 500 at-bats. Just go out there and have fun and relax.’”19
Kelly was 0-for-11 in the Reds’ first four games, then went 8-for-23 between April 6 and April 15 and 0-for-7 in three games between April 16 and April 19, which dropped his batting average to .195. He was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis.
“I saw a guy in spring training who was much more aggressive at the plate, defensively and on the bases – and playing happy,” Knight said. “I think his lack of success at the plate caused him to struggle a bit in every aspect of the game. I told him he hadn’t let me down. He needs to work on the mental part of the game. He needs to be aggressive in the outfield and not be tentative. … I don’t want him to fear failure. It seemed like he was always worried.”20
Kelly was recalled in the first week of July, then was returned to Indianapolis on July 12.
Kelly spent the rest of the season in Indianapolis. Overall, he hit .209 with 8 home runs and 30 RBIs in 88 games. On September 1, when the Reds recalled five players from Indianapolis, Kelly remained with Indianapolis for its two American Association playoff series.
Despite a solid spring training with the Reds in 1997 – 13-for-41 (.317) with three home runs and six RBIs – Kelly was outrighted to Chattanooga on March 27 after clearing waivers. After hearing the news, Kelly said he thought about retiring.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about going home,” Kelly said. “(His father Ben Kelly) said I was too young to quit. Basically, it was ‘keep the faith.’”21
Kelly got off to a good start in Chattanooga. In 15 games, he hit .350 with 3 home runs and 12 RBIs to earn a promotion to Indianapolis. In 27 games with Indianapolis, he hit .348 with 7 home runs and 18 RBIs. On May 24 he was recalled by the Reds.
“I’m happy for him,” Knight said. “I think it’s a testament to his intestinal fortitude. … he was demoted to Double A and it had no negative effect on him. He tore up that league, and was tearing up Triple A, too.”22
Kelly spent the rest of the season with the Reds, hitting a career-high .293 with 6 home runs and 19 RBIs in 73 games.
On November 11 the Reds traded Kelly to the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays after they agreed to take Dmitri Young in the expansion draft and send him to the Reds. Acquired a week before the expansion draft, Kelly became the first player on the Devil Rays roster.
“I’m pretty excited and pretty surprised at the same time,” Kelly said. “I always figured there’d be a chance I wouldn’t be protected and might be taken, but it never entered my mind I’d be traded to the Devil Rays.”23
Kelly enjoyed a good training camp with the Devil Rays, hitting .390. On Opening Day he went 0-for-5 and suffered a groin strain. The injury sidelined Kelly the next six games, and on April 9 he was placed on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 1.
On April 15, Kelly was sent to Triple-A Durham on a rehabilitation assignment. After four games with Durham, he was activated on April 22.
He returned to the lineup on April 23, going 3-for-5 with two home runs – his first multi-home-run game in the majors –in a 12-5 victory at Texas. He spent the rest of the season with Devil Rays, hitting .240 with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs in 106 games.
With about a week to go in spring training in 1999, the Devil Rays released Kelly.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said manager Larry Rothschild. “I think Mike Kelly will be in the major leagues somewhere this season. Mike is a class person who I have lot of respect for, and he is a talented baseball player. We beat our heads in trying to figure out how we could get that talent to show up.”24
For general manager Chuck LaMar, who was with the Braves when Kelly was drafted, the decision was difficult. “We would not have won as many games as we did last year (63) without the contribution of Mike Kelly,” LaMar said. “Today was a tough day because we appreciate what Mike did last year for us, and he’s always been a class act on and off the field.”25
Two days after being released by the Devil Rays, Kelly signed a minor-league contract with the Colorado Rockies. When the Rockies placed Larry Walker on the disabled list in the first week of the regular season, Kelly was recalled. He made his Rockies’ debut on April 9 when he doubled in a run as a pinch-hitter in a game against the Dodgers in Los Angeles. Two days later he went 0-for-1 in the Rockies’ 8-5 loss to San Diego in Denver. It was his last major-league at-bat.
After Walker was reactivated on April 14, Kelly was returned to Colorado Springs. He spent the rest of the season there, batting.277 with 9 and 50 RBIs in 114 games.
Kelly was granted free agency on October 4 and signed a minor-league contract with the New York Mets. He was in spring training with the Mets but was reassigned to their minor-league camp on March 19, 2000, then released on the 30th.
Kelly did not play in 2000, 2001 or 2002. In January of 2003, he signed a minor-league contract with the Kansas City Royals. He spent the 2003 season with Triple-A Omaha. He hit a career-high .296 with 14 home runs and 65 RBI in 100 games and played in the Triple-A All-Star Game in July.
After the season Kelly again became a free agent. In February of 2004, he signed a minor-league contract with the New York Yankees. He spent the season with Triple-A Columbus, hitting .253 with 15 home runs and 50 RBIs in 84 games. After the season, he retired at the age of 34.
In the spring of 2014, Arizona State honored Kelly by placing his jersey number on the Sun Devils’ Wall of Fame. In June of 2015, Kelly was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted collegebaseballhall.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Newspapers.com, Retrosheet.org and thesundevils.com.
1 Mike Kelly Hall of Fame Induction, July 2, 2015, collegebaseballhall.org.
2 Mike Kelly Hall of Fame Induction.
3 Mike Kelly Hall of Fame Induction.
4 Bob Eger, “Baseball Recruits Are Set,” Arizona Republic (Phoenix), August 25, 1988: E8.
5 Eger, “ASU Catches Break on Dropped Fly, Sweeps Cal,” Arizona Republic, April 24, 1989: D4.
6 Eger, “Kelly Snatches Victory from Jaws of Defeat for ASU,” Arizona Republic, May 13, 1990: D1.
7 Eger, “Braves Tap ASU’s Kelly,” Arizona Republic, June 4, 1991: D1.
8 “Braves Sign Ex-Los Alamitos, ASU Standout Kelly,” Orange County Register (Anaheim, California), July 23, 1991: E4.
9 “Braves Sign Ex-Los Alamitos, ASU Standout Kelly.”
10 Tom McCollister, “Kelly Shines in 7-5 Victory over Orioles,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 2, 1994: D1.
12 I.J. Rosenberg, “Kelly Sent to Richmond; Brown Recalled,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, May 5, 1994: G6.
13 Rosenberg, “Kelly Sent to Richmond.”
14 Rosenberg, “Mike Kelly to Play at Richmond During Strike,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, August 13, 1994. D4.
15 Rosenberg, “Yanks’ Polonia Acquired for Bench Help,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 12, 1995: D5.
16 Rosenberg, “Braves Trade Kelly to Reds,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, January 10, 1996: C5.
17 Rosenberg, “Braves Trade Kelly to Reds.”
18 Rosenberg, “Braves Trade Kelly to Reds.”
19 Associated Press, “Kelly Gets Chance as Reds Starter,” Orange County Register, March 31, 1996: C2.
20 Chris Haft, “Howard Back; Kelly Demoted,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 21, 1996: C6.
21 John Fay, “Kelly Owes Promotion to Demotion,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 25, 1997: C5.
23 John Erardi, “Are Reds Deals with New Clubs the Only Deals?” Cincinnati Enquirer, November 12, 1997: D1.
24 Joe Henderson, “Kelly, First Roster Ray, Is Cut,” Tampa Tribune, April 1, 1999: 76.