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Kelly no longer haunted by questions of 'What if?'

Former No. 2 overall pick is what he is, and that's okay.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Mike Kelly is getting tired of being shadowed. Since he was the second pick in the 1991 draft, Kelly has been followed by the twin burdens of promise and potential, a matching set of expectations that makes anything but unmitigated success look like failure.

Frankly, he is weary of hearing it. Kelly is 28 and has come to accept he is what he is -- a valuable utility outfielder who may never get the chance to show whether he is capable of more.

"I don't think I've played too poorly in the chances I've been given," Kelly said. "As far as reaching potential, there's only so much you can do in X number of at-bats that you're given. That's how I look at it. I've never been an everyday player. For people to expect a 30-30 season in 200-some odd at-bats, it's just not going to happen. I don't really get too caught up in peoples' expectations. I just try make the most of what I'm given."

Kelly admits that it has taken him some time to accept things for how they are, and that it hasn't been easy. "For a couple years early on, I would get frustrated by that sort of stuff, of not being an everyday guy," he said. "I let it bother me, and it affected the way I played. I think as I've gotten older, I've learned that that stuff is just part of game, that there's nothing you can do about it.

"I think once I realized it's okay if I'm not an everyday guy, if I'm not a superstar, I think I found peace in that."

Despite the impressive pedigree, Kelly's career has not exactly been laden with opportunity.

He spent five years in the Atlanta system but never got a full season in the big leagues and was traded to Cincinnati. The Reds had him for two up-and-down seasons, including a demotion to Double A, then traded him to the Rays. And after a 1998 season with Tampa Bay that may have been his most productive in the big leagues, including career highs in games (106), at-bats (279), home runs (10), RBI (33) and stolen bases (13), he is battling this spring just to retain his spot on the team.

"Every year that I've been in pro ball there's been a ton of outfielders and a ton of competition in spring," Kelly said. "There's no guarantees in this game. Guys can be replaced so easily, in the blink of an eye. I never really allow myself to become too comfortable. I feel like I've got to go out and earn a spot on this team again. Once I do that, you go from there."

Manager Larry Rothschild said Kelly did a fine job last season in the role of an extra man. "He's a good baserunner, he's got power off the bench, he's a very good outfielder, and he did a nice job of preparing himself for that role," Rothschild said. "He did a lot of things very well."

But Rothschild also thinks there is more there. "What you want to see happen for Mike is that all the ability comes to the front and he becomes an everyday player. He could be a formidable player on a team," Rothschild said. "Mike's at a point in his career where if he's going to be an everyday player, it's time to do it."

The Rays have a surplus of outfielders and Kelly, bothered a bit by a sore back, is off to a slow start at the plate -- 0-for-15 in five games -- but has played well defensively. Kelly, who can't be sent to the minor leagues without being exposed to waivers and possibly claimed by another team, is aware the situation is somewhat tenuous. But he says he wants to stay with the Rays (he enjoys the team, and he and wife Chris like the community), and is confident he can put it all together here.

"I do, I really do," he said. "I've had a couple good seasons in limited number of at-bats and I think if you kind of project the totals out over maybe 500-600 at-bats, I'm pretty close to what people expected out of me. I think I've made the most of what I've been given and I think I played to the best of my ability in the situations I've been put in."

Sometimes, that's all you can do.

"He's still a major-league player," Rothschild said. "You lose sight of that when you're talking about the ability and everything else, but it's still an accomplishment to be a major-league player. He wants more, and he should want more, and you expect more out of him, but he's still become a good major-league player."

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