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Rays' Kennedy 'on a mission'

A background of hard work fires the lefty's resolution to succeed.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2002

A background of hard work fires the lefty's resolution to succeed.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay scout Craig Weissmann had seen a lot of Joe Kennedy. Saw him as a left-handed catcher, shortstop and crudely novice senior pitcher for El Cajon Valley High. Saw him as a developing pitching prospect for Grossmont Community College. Saw him sign the night of the 1998 draft for a modest $45,000 after the Rays picked him in the eighth round. Saw him during his first three nondescript seasons in the lower end of the minor-league system.

But he hadn't seen anything like the night Kennedy walked into Trophy's sports bar in San Diego last February.

"I hadn't seen him in a couple months," Weissmann said. "I knew he was working a job moving furniture, I knew he was working out real hard, I knew his bonus money was starting to run out a little bit.

"When he walked through the door, I knew this guy was on a mission. I knew this guy was serious. His body was getting hard and firm. And he just had the eye of the tiger."

When Kennedy reported to minor-league spring training camp a few weeks later, Rays officials noticed as well. Four months later the rest of the baseball world saw what they were talking about.

After blazing through Double A and Triple A, Kennedy made it to the majors in early June and firmly established himself as one of the game's top young left-handed pitchers.

"He's come a long way," said Rays coach Tom Foley, the former minor-league field coordinator.

There are plenty of stories of million-dollar bonus babies who are coddled, pampered and delivered to the doorstep of the major leagues.

Kennedy is not among them.

The best way to get a sense of how far he has come is to go back to where he came from, to his blue-collar family and the middle-to-lower class neighborhoods outside San Diego they called home.

"I think it's been somewhat of a tough life," Weissmann said. "They're not destitute by any means; they're good people, hard-working people, who had to get their hands dirty to make a dollar."

John and Holly Kennedy were always trying to better things for their three kids. So they'd move from job to job, John driving trucks and Holly working in offices, and from apartment to apartment. "My 21 years living at home, we probably moved 18 times," Joe Kennedy said. "My dad would get a better job or we'd find a place a little nicer. I remember a couple times moving just two doors down."

They did so, John Kennedy said, for self-preservation. "I wanted to spend time with the kids so they weren't getting into drugs and things like that," he said. "Being with them was more important than having a couple extra dollars. Having hamburger instead of steaks was worth it."

Baseball became a primary family activity. Holly, with daughter Bettianne in tow, was president of the local youth league. John would coach sons John Jr. and Joe, and it wasn't unusual for him to drive to the field in a semi or a dump truck.

Sports turned out to be Joe's salvation. Remarkably shy, he had just a handful of friends, didn't attend school functions, didn't have a girlfriend until his senior year. His outlet came through sports, and he starred on the diamond, the football field, the volleyball and basketball courts.

He decided that baseball was his passion and, he hoped, his profession.

The first big step took place before he could run. At 3, Joe could throw adeptly with both arms, and John Kennedy took him to a Padres caravan stop to show him off. General manager Jack McKeon gave them simple advice: "If you ever want him in the big leagues, have him throw left-handed."

Joe did -- but does everything right-handed but shoot a basketball and throw a baseball.

Despite impressive stats his senior year, his first pitching regularly, Kennedy was not among the 1,607 players taken in the 1997 draft. But he was so determined to play pro ball he didn't bother taking the SAT or exploring any four-year schools (despite graduating with honors) and decided to go up the road to Grossmont.

That's where Ed Olsen, a drill sergeant of a coach, took away his bat and made him focus on pitching. "He was absolutely as green as anything," Olsen said. "But he had a great attitude, he had strict discipline of the mind and he matured very fast."

Olsen taught Kennedy about the game and about life, and the 5-6 mph he added to his fastball were nothing compared with what else he gained.

Marveling at the improvement Kennedy made in a year, Weissmann urged the Rays to draft him. Kennedy signed that night.

He did well during his first three pro seasons but not well enough to be considered a top-level prospect. Some Rays officials weren't sure he'd make it at all, and the organization didn't think enough of him to put him on the 40-man roster after the 2000 season. Then again, none of the 29 other teams thought he was worth taking for the $50,000 Rule 5 draft fee.

The breakthrough came last spring. Tired of the minor leagues, frustrated over not being able to make any real money and having to spend winters delivering pizzas and moving furniture, Kennedy decided to do something about it.

His head clear after the dissolution of a two-year relationship and his body newly firm, Kennedy showed the Rays a focus, dedication and determination they hadn't seen before.

"Spring training is what told us," Foley said.

Kennedy's goal was to make the Double-A roster, which he did. Then he blew up all timetables for getting to the big leagues.

Said Kennedy: "It was my make or break year, plain and simple."

Having made it, going 7-8 in 20 starts and earning a spot in the rotation this season, Kennedy faces a new set of challenges, such as dealing with the successes and failures.

At home, times are tough, and some relatives have criticized Joe for not doing more to help.

John Jr., Bettianne and her 21/2-year-old son, Ricky, are sharing space with John and Holly in their three-bedroom doublewide mobile home. Holly was forced to quit her job because of fibromyalgia, a mysterious disorder that leaves her in constant pain. To make up for the lost income John quit his job transporting residents at a retirement home and went back to driving a dump truck.

"They're struggling right now, but I told them I need to take care of myself first," Joe Kennedy said. "Not to be selfish, but they understand that my life is my life. They'll get what's coming to them for taking care of me for so long and loving me and being there for me my whole life. If the time is right and the situation is right, I'll give the world to them."

John Kennedy said that's fine by them, that they haven't asked Joe for anything, nor do they expect it: "It's his career and his money. As long as he's financially able to live the lifestyle he wants, that's fine."

So far, it has been -- by baseball standards -- a modest one. Kennedy, who made about $135,000 last season and signed Saturday for around $220,000, drove a Kia and now an Isuzu, doesn't wear flashy jewelry and shares a condo with teammate Nick Bierbrodt.

Manager Hal McRae said he doesn't think Kennedy experienced enough success last year for it to go to this head. Others said they'll wait and see.

"You've got to know how to act, how to carry yourself, how to work, how to prepare," veteran outfielder Greg Vaughn said. "He's done a good job and he's in good shape and it seems like he's headed in the right direction. The key is you don't have to be an a------ and a p---- when you're having success, then when things don't go right you act a different way. If he matures in that way, the sky's the limit for him because he has all the stuff."

John Kennedy said he doesn't think his son will forget where he came from, that "he's the same kid he was when he was 12 or 13 years old. There's nothing different except now we watch him on TV occasionally."

Joe Kennedy plans to give them something to see.

"I want to be a No. 1 starter, I want to make the All-Star team, I want the Cy Young," he said. "I want all that, just as every other pitcher in the organization wants it. I'm 22 years old and I've got a lot of time and I've got a lot of things to work on still. Maybe that day will come. I'm not quitting. I've got a lot to learn and a lot to do."

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