Everybody’s journey is different: Merrill Kelly's unique path to his first opening day

Tim BrownMLB columnist
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/arizona/" data-ylk="slk:Arizona Diamondbacks">Arizona Diamondbacks</a> starting pitcher <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/11251/" data-ylk="slk:Merrill Kelly">Merrill Kelly</a> experienced his first opening day on Thursday. (AP Photo)
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Merrill Kelly experienced his first opening day on Thursday. (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES — On a day in which there would be 15 baseball games, hundreds of waving ballplayers lined along dozens of basepaths, thousands of souls in those ballparks, all ready to start over, to try it again, to be a little better this time, Merrill Kelly awoke Thursday morning in a hotel room in the clouds above downtown here. Bre, his wife of four months, was beside him.

Of all of those journeys to all of those basepaths in all of those ballparks, Kelly’s would conclude with a bus ride of two or three miles, up the hill, from where, perhaps, he would see his every step till now. Through the minor leagues, through four years in Korea, though the trials of time and distance, to a small patch of smoothed dirt saved between Archie Bradley and Alex Avila, teammates with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to his first opening day, his first day in the big leagues, his first recognition that what was maybe possible had happened.

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“Some days, and I was telling these guys,” Kelly said, gesturing around him, “me standing here talking to you right now, this day was literally miles away. So many miles away.”

He turned 30 in October. He is a right-handed pitcher scheduled to start Monday in San Diego. But, for a day at least, he was a guy in a big-league jersey after years being an SK Wyvern, an Escogido Leon, a Durham Bull, a Salt River Rafter.

Thursday marked opening day for a number of players on the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Getty Images)
Thursday marked opening day for a number of players on the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Getty Images)

“Everybody’s journey is different,” he said. “Who knows where I’d be if my journey started the traditional way. … Nobody gets drafted and thinks, ‘Man, I hope one day I can go to Korea.’”

Along the way, he said, he learned about how small the world can be, how wonderfully different people could be, and it inspired in him curiosity and empathy. He became a better pitcher, too, which is also what put him on that line early Thursday afternoon, across the infield from Alex Verdugo, who a few hours earlier had stood before his locker, spread his new white jersey on its hanger, and taken a photo of it.

“Number 27,” he said lovingly, a real number, having spent bits of the past two seasons in the major leagues as 61, a number generally worn by players who spend bits of seasons in the major leagues.

His first opening day, at 22 years old. His journey shorter than Kelly’s, almost certainly as meaningful. So his parents would be in the stadium on Thursday afternoon. His mother, Michelle, who over the years had driven him to enough practices, enough hitting lessons, to coo from the stands, “You gotta keep your eye on the ball! You’re pulling off!” His father, Joseph, who so long ago had considered his son and his son’s dream and said, “If you love it, I’m here for you.”

They said one last goodbye to Don Newcombe at Dodger Stadium. They cheered Tommy Lasorda, who two-hand hoisted himself from his seat to offer a foggy hello. The former general manager, Ned Colletti, wore a blue suit and did pre-game television. The ace, Clayton Kershaw, did not start on this day for the first time since he was 22 years old, Verdugo’s age. He is 31 (and injured) now, and traveled the introductory third-base line like the rest of them. Down south an hour or so, Dallas Keuchel, one of the last free agents, was said to be throwing a simulated game, considering a trickle of new offers, sitting this one out. The Diamondbacks introduced six players who’d never been on an opening day roster. One who had been — Zack Greinke — played, and allowed four home runs and recorded 11 outs. The Dodgers’ hitting coach spent his first day in the big leagues. His hitters hit eight home runs.

And so this would be the baseball, the day like any other, the renewal, the same old crap, the last stop, the first stop, one of 15, one of hundreds, one of thousands.

Outfielder Alex Verdugo took part in his first opening day on Thursday as a member of the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/la-dodgers/" data-ylk="slk:Los Angeles Dodgers">Los Angeles Dodgers</a>. (Getty Images)
Outfielder Alex Verdugo took part in his first opening day on Thursday as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. (Getty Images)

The Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks, 12-5, in what could be a fairly common outcome for both. But, you don’t know until you know, and until then showing up is a good portion of the day, of all the days. Then, who knows, the rest of the journey might only be up that one last hill.

Merrill Kelly said he woke up thinking, “How I’m trying not to think too much.”

He laughed. Maybe Alex Verdugo had the same thought. And so did Tommy. And Kershaw. And the ex-GM and the current hitting coach and the free agent and every one of those souls who picked through traffic on a Thursday morning to sit and watch.

“Today is just day one,” Kelly said. “After today is over I’ll officially have one day of service time.”

Maybe it doesn’t sound like much. Maybe you can’t imagine how much bigger one is than none. How many more miles between the two.

“It was cool going that route,” he said, because it would have to be, because it was his, because what was maybe possible had happened.

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