UNIVERSITY PARK — Where were you when your dream came true? Carson Kelly remembers exactly where he was.
At 18 years old, Kelly is the State College Spikes’ youngest player. And the second-round pick in 2012 has a draft-day tale to tell.
“It’s a crazy story,” Kelly said.
The Portland, Ore, native was in a 10 a.m. sports marketing class giving a group Power Point presentation in a computer lab at Westview High School.
Ironically, they were tasked with creating and cultivating a mock baseball franchise.
As Kelly began detailing the stadium his team had constructed, the entire classroom erupted with applause.
“I’m like, ‘ Guys wait, we’re not done with our presentation yet,’” Kelly recalled with a smile. “’You have to wait to applaud us.’”
What Kelly didn’t know was that the St. Louis Cardinals had just drafted him 86th overall, and his classmates had been tracking the results on their computers.
Minutes later, Kelly received a congratulatory phone call from area scout Matt Swanson.
“Just congratulated him for being a Cardinal and for taking this amazing journey,” Swanson said. “So few kids get to realize this opportunity and have it come before them and yet here he was.”
A cool draft-day anecdote is great, but Kelly’s dream wasn’t just to be selected. He has embarked upon a career that puts him up against grown men, forcing him to mature quickly and compete for limited opportunities for advancement.
“It’s definitely different being on your own, taking care of bills, family is far away,” Kelly said. “Definitely a different experience.”
In 2012, Kelly hit .225 in 56 games with Johnson City in the Appalachian League. He also hit 10 doubles and nine home runs. Certainly not dominant numbers, but not bad for a guy just months removed from high school.
A back-to-back Gatorade High School Player of the Year as a junior and senior, Kelly has also won gold with Team USA at the 16-and-under Pan-American Games in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico, and another gold in the 18-and-under Games in Cartagena, Colombia.
He is currently rated as the ninth best prospect in the Cardinals system by Baseball America, a publication that has ranked prospects since 1981.
The attention hasn’t seemed to faze him. It’s that demeanor, not to mention power at the plate, that originally caught Swanson’s eye.
“Probably some of the best raw power I’ve ever seen for somebody that age,” Swanson said. “And honestly, one of the ultimate selling points was that he is wise, mature and professional beyond his years.”
A sentiment shared by Kelly’s current manager.
“Carson is a professional,” said Spikes manager Oliver Marmol. “He’s 18 years old, and he carries himself like he’s been around the game for years.”
The two debuted together in Johnson City, Marmol in his first managerial role and Kelly his first as a pro.
“He’s a kid that on the field is very exciting because he’s got a great swing, he hits for power, he has great hands defensively and he has very little experience on the pro level, so we get excited about players like him because down the road they may show to be very helpful at the big-league level,” Marmol said.
For now, Kelly is still trying to slow the game down and apply a more cerebral attack rather than just using the athleticism that helped him dominate in high school.
He began the season 2-for-12 through three games at the plate, but a fine defensive play robbed him of extra bases in the opener and a double to left-center in Game 2 at Bowman Field caromed off the wall just feet from being a home run.
Before Wednesday’s victory over Williamsport, Spikes hitting instructor Ramon Ortiz said it’s simply a matter of time before hits come in bunches for Kelly.
Thursday night in Auburn, N.Y., against the Doubledays, the young third baseman went 2-for-4 with two doubles and two runs scored in State College’s 7-5 victory. A 3-for-4 night on Friday raised Kelly’s batting average to .350 and helped State College (4-1) win its fourth straight in a 12-1 route. Kelly blasted a three-run homer on Saturday against the Doubledays.
The Spikes return home Sunday for a 6:05 p.m. start against the Jamestown Jammers. The three-game series will mark the return of a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate to Medlar Field at Lubrano Park. The Spikes were a Pirates affiliate last season.
“Everything is just elevated to a new level,” Kelly said recently. “You look at the smallest details. Maybe (the pitcher) moves his glove slightly when he throws a breaking ball or something. The slightest detail, those are the things you look for, and that’s what separates you and helps you move up to different levels. Be very consistent and start picking out stuff that nobody else does.”
The odds are against any minor leaguer making it to the majors — no matter what age they start. However, if Kelly’s journey falls short it’s not likely to be because he doesn’t think the game well enough.
“Everybody has their own toolbox in their brain,” he said. “The more tools you have in that toolbox the more success it’ll bring.”
That mature mindset is either a byproduct of coaching or was developed over a life — albeit short-lived so far — dedicated to the pursuit of a dream.
Kelly said his father, Mike, played baseball and football at Elmhurst College, but sealed his son’s fate by putting a tiny bat in the crib the day they returned from the hospital.
The Spikes’ third baseman cherishes the photo of his first day home.
But now that home is far away.
“People ask me, ‘do you like playing baseball?’” Kelly said. “No — I love it.”