For Yankees' Kelly, all else is secondary: 'I just wanted to play'

June 02, 1991|By Tom Verducci | Tom Verducci,Newsday

NEW YORK -- When Pat Kelly was growing up in Nort Catashuqua, Pa., one of his chores was to stack the chairs and clean the floor at Kelly's 19th Hole, a bar his father owned, every Sunday morning. But the way Kelly figured it, his work at the bar kept him from the playground next to his house. So he paid his sister $15 to swab the bar while he skipped out to play baseball.

"I was broke, but I was happy," he said.

Three years ago, Yankee scout Joe DiCarlo called to tell Kelly that the Yankees had selected him in the ninth round of the amateur draft.

"That's great," Kelly said. "Where am I going?"

Before the Yankees could assign Kelly to Oneonta, N.Y., they needed to sign him to a contract. No problem there. Kelly wasn't interested in negotiating.

"All he said was, 'Give me the pen,' " said Brian Sabean, the Yankees vice president of player development. "I think he signed the same day that we drafted him. That is unusual."

The Yankees gave him $10,000.

"I probably could have got $15,000 if I tried," Kelly said. "But I didn't care how much they paid me. I just wanted to play."

Eight days ago, Yankees manager Stump Merrill pulled Kelly aside and told him he was being moved from second base to third base. Kelly had been in the big leagues for less than a week and was being asked to learn a new position.

"He told me," Merrill said, "that it was fine with him. He said he'd shine the shoes or mop the floors if that's what we wanted him to do. Anything to stay in the major leagues."

From North Catashuqua to New York City, from the playgrounds of his youth to Yankee Stadium, Pat Kelly hasn't changed. He wants only to play baseball. For the Yankees, he has made it to the big leagues as a temporary answer to their third-base problem. For the rest of us, he has arrived as a welcome reminder of the way baseball and its players used to be. That said, we need him more than the Yankees do.

If you are tired of Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds and the rest of baseball's miserable millionaires, then Kelly is your kind of player. He should be wearing baggy flannels, not polyester double knits. He has come to life out of a Rockwell painting, or maybe a black-and-white newsreel, or at least an old Bethlehem Valley steel town in which "our claim to fame," according to Kelly, is former American Basketball Association star Larry Miller.

Thursday, on what would have been his first day off in New York as a major leaguer, Kelly, 23, was back home in North Catashuqua -- or "Catty," as the locals call it. He planned to "hang out with one of my friends from high school." And just what constitutes hanging out in Catty?

"Actually, practically nothing," Kelly said Wednesday. "Just hanging out, eating, go see some of my high school teachers, stop in and say hi."

Imagine that. He will bypass the Broadway shows, the fancy restaurants and the late-night clubs so he can chat with his geometry teacher. Kelly left Yankee Stadium after the game Wednesday night in his truck to make the two-hour trip home.

"Everything I own in life is in that truck," he said. "I mean it. Everything. If a robber broke in, I'd have nothing."

Kelly said the most money he had ever received in one check was $2,000. Now, while being paid at an annual rate of $100,000, he will be get almost $8,000 every two weeks. And then there is his cut of the major-league licensing money, which will bring him a check for about $50,000.

"Ah, I'll probably give it to my father," he said. "I'll ask him if he needs it."

John Kelly, who sold the bar and quit his construction job, is now a building superintendent near Catty. He likes to tell the story about how Pat, who drew some interest from a college in Mississippi, decided to attend West Chester (Pa.) State.

"He went on a visit, and the first thing the coach says to him is, 'I don't allow earrings, long hair or any of that stuff,' " John Kelly said. "A real disciplinarian. So Pat says right away, 'This is where I'm going.' "

Kelly hit better than .500 in college and showed his natural athletic ability. His father has Super-8 home movies in which 3-year-old Pat dribbles a basketball behind his back, a stunt that astounded the Kellys' pediatrician. Though he is barely 5-foot-10 now, Kelly can dunk backward.

On Memorial Day three years ago, just before the draft, the Yankees invited Kelly to Yankee Stadium for a tryout. Kelly checked out the monuments. On Memorial Day this year, John Kelly packed 22 people into a small bus and drove from Catty to New York to watch Pat play third base for the Yankees.

"I could have filled three buses," John said.

"I wish they hadn't come," Pat said. "I wish it was a regular Monday night game and everybody was working. I just like to play. And go home after the game."

Sabean said: "What you see in him now, we saw the same things scouting him. He has fun playing the game. You can see that."

You have to wonder how long this will last. Kelly probably will develop into an excellent middle infielder. There will be arbitration, free agency, card shows, endorsements and the rest of modern baseball's trappings.

"Don't worry," Kelly said. "That is the one thing you can be sure of: I won't change. No way. I guarantee it."

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