In his first season with the Kansas City T-Bones, first baseman/outfielder Kevin Keyes has been a key contributor for the team, entering the break tied for the American Association lead in homers with 16 and third in RBI with 51. He has proven to be anything but a routine sort of ballplayer and that has helped him to earn a spot on the American Association All-Star Team.
There are few sports on the planet that are as taxing on a person as baseball. It is not that the sport is overly demanding in the physical sense, but it does require a mentality that is able to handle the constant failure, repetition, and routine of America’s pastime. It is spending hours every day fielding ground balls, hitting in the batting cage, taking batting practice, and shagging flies that goes beyond tedious.
It is the routine that is the most grueling part of the sport. Regardless of whether one is a pitcher or fielder, there are long hours spent every day doing the exact same thing over and over again. This is not like football or hockey, where one will try a play a few times, maybe a dozen times, before moving on. A baseball player could literally spend an hour or two working on nothing but trying to hit curve balls or getting his footwork right to field a ground ball in the hole.
While some find that a routine like this can be beyond boring, Kansas City T-Bones first baseman/outfielder Kevin Keyes is taking an entirely different approach. Instead of cursing the long hours of tedious and repetitious drills, he is seeing routine as the means to success and, as a result, has become one of the best players in the American Association, earning him a place in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game.
Striving to Succeed Instilled an Early Age
Many young boys are encouraged by their parents to start playing sports when they are five or six, and Kevin Keyes was no different. Barbara and Gregory Keyes wanted their son to try out everything he could, encouraging him to play a wide variety of sports to see which ones interested him.
While his parents wanted him to enjoy the benefits that sports have to offer, they also wanted him to learn an ethic about playing sports. To dedicate himself to not only having fun, but to also wanting to work hard. Kevin was more than happy to oblige.
He admired the way that his parents carried themselves and how hard they worked hard to provide for the family. It became the pattern he wanted to emulate himself.
“My dad’s a hard worker. He worked for 29 years at the fire department. He showed me how to be a hard worker, doing it the right way, sticking to a schedule, stuff like that. My mom, too. My mom has worked for 25 years. Both my parents have good jobs where they work hard every day, ensuring that I had good things. They made sure that I had the advantages so I could do well and whatever I wanted to try. It is because of them that I never took things for granted, that I realize that I need to get my stuff done because this is my job. Some don’t really look at it that way, but this is my job and I need to give it my all. That’s a lesson that they taught me.”
Earning a Reputation for Excellence in High School
Kevin Keyes dedicated himself to working hard from the very start, no matter what activity he involved himself in. He saw no purpose in doing a half-baked job.
“While you want to have fun playing baseball, if you want to be great at the sport you have to work hard. There is a right way to play the sport and if you are not going to give it your all so that your team has the best chance of winning then there is no sense going out there. Your team is counting on you and you have to give them your all every time you step on the field.”
Kevin attended John R. Connally High School (Austin, TX) where he dedicated himself to that very principle. The teen earned a varsity letter all four years at the school and improved each season. As a sophomore, he hit .405 with 5-homers and was named to the All-District 17-4A honors. As a junior Kevin hit .471 with 7-homers, both career highs. He received district and state honors as well.
In his senior season, Kevin hit .440 with 5-homers and 7-triples. This earned his All-State honors and he was named the District 25-4 Most Valuable Player. His statistics were earning him a lot of acclaim and that resulted in him being selected in the 26th round of the MLB draft by the Texas Rangers.
A Start toward Changing His World
Kevin Keyes had been selected by his hometown Texas Rangers team but opted, instead, to pursue his academic career. The freshman enrolled at the University of Texas and became a star for the Longhorns on the diamond.
In his freshman season, Kevin appeared in 34-games and quickly enamored himself with the coaching staff, hitting .339 with 13-runs scored, 4-homers and 10-RBI in 59-at-bats. It was a solid beginning, but was only a taste of what was about to come.
In 2009, Kevin appeared in all 65-games, helping the Texas Longhorns reach the College World Series title series. He hit .305 that season, with 46-runs scored, 9-homers, and 46-RBI. During the NCAA Tournament, the outfielder hit .349 with 5-homers and 14-RBI in 12-games. As the stakes increased, Kevin stepped up his game, posting a .407 on-base percentage during the College World Series.
His junior season was another banner year. Kevin hit .311 in 63-games, with 49-runs scored, a career high 15-homers, and 59-RBI. The Longhorns star had proven that he could hit and that when it was crunch time that he was ready to take his game to a whole new level. That appealed to the Washington Nationals, who made Kevin their selection in the seventh round.
While he had been drafted before, this was an extra special moment. Kevin knew that he had proven himself at one of the best universities in the country and on the biggest stage that college baseball had to offer. It was a grand moment that didn’t afford him much of a chance to celebrate.
“When I got drafted, we were in the super regionals at Texas and I was driving home from practice. My agent called me and told me that I got drafted by the Nationals in the seventh round and that was really good for me. Building up all my life to that moment; it was such a great relief being drafted. I got that out of the way and I was able to play baseball for the University of Texas to try to win a national championship.”
So, how did Kevin celebrate the feat?
“My roommate and I went to a sub place down the street. He bought it for me so I guess that was his way of telling me congratulations. I did get extra cheese and extra bacon on it,” he explains with a laugh.
Kevin Keyes with a Sudden Wave of Nationalism
In the same year that Bryce Harper was drafted, Kevin Keyes joined the Washington Nationals organization. He was sent to Vermont in the New York-Penn League where he struggled a bit at first, hitting .175 in 39-games with 3-homers and 23-RBI.
Undaunted, he returned the following season looking to prove that he belonged. The Nationals promoted him to Mid-A Hagerstown, where Kevin hit .263 in 85-games. While the average was not up to his standards, the then 22-year-old showed a great deal of power, hitting 17-homers while driving in 65.
He would spend the next two seasons in High-A Potomac where Kevin hit .223 and .233 respectively, but the power was once again on full display. He hit 21-homers in 114-games in 2012 and added 13 more the next season. He also combined for 51-doubles over the two campaigns.
The 2014 season began with Kevin in Potomac, but he was moved to AA-Harrisburg after just 19-games. In 114-games in AA, he hit 20-homers, scored 52-runs, and drove in 64. Added to the 4-home runs he hit before joining Harrisburg, and Kevin set his career high with 24-home runs that season.
In 2015, Kevin Keyes had his best season at the plate in terms of average and, ironically, it happened at AAA-Syracuse. After spending 56-games at Harrisburg, the outfielder was moved to AAA where he hit .256 with 8-homers in 76-games. He would split time between the two levels in 2016, but the results would not be as productive and he was granted free agency at the end of the season.
In February of this year, Keyes signed with the Texas Rangers organization and reported to Spring Training. It was an opportunity to get a fresh start, but the organization did not give him much of a chance, releasing him before Spring Training came to an end.
Following the Routine Will Lead to Success
While a bit dismayed by the release, Kevin Keyes in no way thought his time on the diamond was over. He knew he could hit, he just needed to get another chance. On March 28, that chance came when the Kansas City T-Bones signed Kevin to play first and the outfield. To Keyes, this was a great opportunity.
“When I got released by the Rangers, most other affiliate teams has their rosters already filled. So, this season (American Association) begins a little bit later than affiliate teams, so (Kansas City Manager) Joe (Calfapietra) called me and asked me if I wanted to play. He talked me up, explaining that this was an opportunity to get picked up by an affiliated team. So, I jumped on and so far, so good. We’ve had three or four players that have been picked up so far. The team is great, this is the right time, the right opportunity because everyone on this team can keep their dream going.”
Wichita Wingnuts Manager Pete Rose, Jr. once made the point that if you still have a jersey on then you still have a chance to make it the Majors one day. For some, all they are doing is wearing a jersey, but Kevin came to Kansas City and instantly made an impact for the team.
The 2017 American Association started a little slow for Kevin, as he was hitting .214 through the first week, however, he caught fire, raising his average to a season high .308 on the last day before the All-Star break. That has included a 10-game hitting streak (June 5-June 14) and 19-games where he had at least 2-hits. Entering the All-Star break, he had hits in his last four-games and had a 4-hit game in Winnipeg on July 16.
While the average has been impressive, it has been the power that has been eye-popping. Kevin has 16-homers, tied for the American Association lead and his 51-RBI is third. Two times this season the T-Bones slugger hit home runs in three consecutive games, and the T-Bones are 9-5 in games when he has hit a homer.
The Success Is in the Routine
While proving that he has the talent to reach the highest levels of the game, what has helped Kevin Keyes through the good times and the bad has been his commitment to the routine. One of the biggest mistakes that players make is when things are not going their way they start to make all kinds of adjustments looking for something else that may help them to succeed.
Former Athletics and Cardinals Mark McGwire once told a story where he had made several adjustments in his swing that eventually led to him seeing his average plummet to .208. As he was leaving the field one day, a fan made a gesture that confused the slugger. He approached the fan who explained that McGwire had changed his stance so much, getting away from the way that he had positioned his feet, so that it was affecting his entire swing.
This is a common story, and one that Kevin has not allowed to become his own. He has committed himself to staying true to the things that got him to this level, and this is one of the primary messages that he preaches to teammates and to kids.
“You try to do the same thing you do every day. Going to the cage, stick to your routine, prepare yourself for the game whether you are 0 of 30 or on a 30-game hitting streak. Try to stay consistent on a consistent basis so that when you do go bad you know what you can do to fix it because you have been doing the same thing every day. I tell young hitters that when you’re going good write down what you’re thinking, write down what kind of set drills you’re doing, because that’s what you want to go back to or refer to when you’re struggling. When you set up a routine every day the same way then when you’re having success you want to stick to that routine. When success stops then you want to look at the routine and see what you’re doing different where you’ve gotten out of the routine.”
The Routine Helps to Keep Kevin Keyes Mentally Tough
Baseball is the toughest of sports mentally, because this is a game of failure. As players frequently point out, if you are successful three times out of 10 then you are a Hall of Famer. It takes a certain kind of toughness to still keep battling when you fail so often, especially when things are not going well at all. This is where the routine has become pivotal for Kevin Keyes.
“There are going to be points in the season where you’re going to be high and there are going to be points in the season where you’re going to be low. I just think you need to stay level-headed and be consistent with your routine. If your routine is consistent then I think that everything else will take care of itself.”
As part of that routine, Kevin is constantly picking the brains of those who have had great success in the game. While sticking to the routine is important, he also understands that a player has to learn and grow, to develop. He grasps that the better his own game gets the more likely he is to be able to help his own team.
“I played with a lot of really good players in the game and I like to pick their brains. To see how their successful, to see how they were coached successfully, to try to make myself better. I’m to the point where I’m still just learning how to be a successful baseball player. I haven’t figured out, so I’m just trying to help my team out whenever I can.”
Not Your Every Day All-Star
The American Association/Can-Am League All-Star Game will showcase some of the best talent that independent baseball has to offer. Many of these young men have the skills and talent to be on a major league roster, and one day may even be so.
It surely would not be surprising to see Kansas City T-Bones outfielder/first baseman Kevin Keyes there one day. The slugger has proven to not only be an exceptional hitter at the plate, but the kind of young man that people look up to and who would be the ideal teammate on any squad. He truly is proving to be anything but a routine ballplayer.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA