Kelly's first taste of majors is sweet
No offense to the minor leagues, but Carson Kelly could get used to this major-league stuff.
"It's just way different," says the former Westview High standout, called up to the St. Louis Cardinals on July 21 from their Memphis Triple-A affiliate. "It's crazy how different.
"In Triple-A, we'd take those early-morning commercial flights to the next city, and almost always have a connecting flight. In the big leagues, you don't even carry your bags to the plane. (With the Cardinals), we go by charter. You go directly to the next city. You land, and they take you to the hotel.
"Everything is first class. No complaints from here at all."
Kelly's first tastes of the major leagues have been storybook-like.
His parents, Mike and Traci, were with him in Oklahoma City when, at age 22, he got the word of his September call-up to the Cardinals last season. They were on hand two days later when, in his first big-league at-bat, he delivered a double and scored a run in a 12-6 win over Pittsburgh at PNC Park. "That was special," he says.
In Kelly's first game with St. Louis this season, he laced a two-run double in an 11-4 victory over the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
"I was born in Chicago and have a lot of family there," says Kelly, who turned 23 on July 14. "So that was pretty cool."
Kelly was the Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year in 2011 and '12, joining a list of former Westview greats that includes pitcher Mike Davies (1999) and shortstops Trevor Crowe (2002) and Jason Ogata (2005). Kelly was a four-year starter, leading the Wildcats to a Class 6A championship as a junior under coach Steve Antich.
Antich knew he had something special in Kelly, who played first base as a freshman and pitcher and shortstop after that.
"Carson was the most gifted player I ever coached, especially offensively," says Antich, who recently retired after serving as head coach for 11 years at Westview and five at South Medford. "He was head and shoulders above the other guys. He was a complete hitter, with power to all fields. "
In 2012, the national high school association modified the aluminum bat to lessen the explosion after contact.
"Before that change, I was worried Carson was going to hurt somebody," Antich says. "It was just different when he hit the ball. When I was coaching third base, I'd move far back toward foul territory. He hit the ball so hard, it was hard to react."
Antich appreciated something else even more about Kelly.
"Carson was such a good teammate," he says. "Selfless. He did all the all-star stuff, but he wasn't above the other guys, carrying baseballs to the field and so on. Great family. That's what stood out when I talked to scouts from the Cardinal organization — his work ethic, dedication and the fact he's just a good kid."
Kelly didn't have a timetable in terms of when he thought he'd make it to the major leagues.
"I wanted to get there as fast as I could, but I know I wouldn't rush through everything," he says. "I'm very happy with the path I've taken. I've learned a lot. Going into the professional baseball world, you're still trying to figure out how to operate. It was a big step for me to learn about myself and get to where I'm at so fast."
The Cardinals made the 6-2, 220-pound Kelly a second-round draft pick in 2012, a month before he turned 18. He played third base for his first two minor-league seasons, then converted to catcher in 2014.
"I thought there could be that possibility," he says. "Growing up, my dad had me do a little bit of everything. I played some outfield, first base, second base, and I caught a little bit, just in case.
"When (the Cardinals) came to me with this idea, I thought, 'Interesting. Let's give it a test run and see how it works.' It ended up changing my entire career. At first it was tentative, but now it's part of who I am."
Kelly spent the entire 2015 season in long-season A ball at Palm Beach, Florida, hitting .219 in 108 games. The next year, after stops in Double-A Springfield (.287 in 64 games) and Triple-A Memphis (.292 in 32 games), Kelly got his first cup of coffee in the big leagues.
"It's amazing," he says. "You think about all the hard work you put in coming through the system. You think back to all the times in high school — the whole journey you've taken. it's been very special the entire way."
Kelly credits many people for helping him make it, including his father, a retired Nike vice president of global brand marketing.
"My parents made a lot of sacrifices for me," he says. "There were a couple of guys I used to hit with who played at the University of Portland — Kory Casto (a first baseman/outfielder who made it to the majors) and Travis Vetters. I used to pitch with Chris Pine (owner of the Yard Baseball Academy) when I was 8 years old. There were a ton of people who really helped me get to where I am."
Kelly also mentions Scott Ackerman, the 1997 Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year out of Oregon City, a catcher who made it as far as the Triple-A level.
Ackerman runs The Bat Company in West Linn. "He helped me with my transition to catching," Kelly says.
Then there is Antich, his coach for four years at Westview.
"He was really good," Kelly says. "He gave me the opportunity be on the varsity as a freshman. I remember he came to me before the season when we were picking jersey numbers. When it got to me, there was only one left. He said, 'Either 19 is your number, or you go to the JV team." I said, 'You know, I'm going to take 19.'
"Everywhere I've gone through the Cardinal system, I tried to get 19 as my number. I'm 30 now (with St. Louis), but it's in the works to maybe me getting 19 next year."
Prior to the 2017 season, MLBPipeline.com ranked Kelly as the organization's No. 2 prospect.
He started the season with Triple-A Memphis, hitting .283 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs in 68 games with a .375 OBP, making the Triple-A All-Star Game before his call-up.
Now Kelly is the back-up to Yadier Molina, in his 13th season as the Cardinals' starting catcher. The 35-year-old Molina — eight times an All-Star and Gold Glove winner — signed a three-year contract extension before the season.
"The extension the Cards gave Molina might have been a little hasty, as Kelly is probably going to be ready to be the Cards' primary catcher next year," write ESPN prospects guru Keith Law, who ranked Kelly as the 27th best overall in his midseason rankings. "While no one is going to match Molina's reputation as a game-caller, Kelly continues to improve in all areas on defense."
Does Kelly see himself as Molina's heir apparent?
"That's a good question," Kelly says. "I'm going to be Carson Kelly. I'm happy to be here. I'm going to continue to learn. (Molina) has been so helpful to me helping establish who I am and what I need to do to play catcher at this level. I'm going to be ready to go when I get that call."
Through Monday, Kelly was hitting .148 in 27 at-bats with the Cardinals, who trail Colorado, Arizona and Milwaukee in the race for the two wild-card playoff spots in the National League.
"I like the organization a lot," he says. "We have a rich history, especially with catchers. There's a winning tradition. Everything just attracts you in. Getting drafted and coming through the system and eventually making my big league debut with the Cardinals, it's been a lot of fun."
Kelly would love to have a chance to participate in the playoffs so early in his career.
"But mostly, I just want to continue to grow," he says. "I've been in the big leagues for about two months now. I want to continue to have fun, learn, soak it all in and make adjustments every day."