CONCORD, Mass. -- By his own admission John Kelly is a baseball lifer. He says he would be a lost soul without it.
Kelly has been the varsity coach at Concord-Carlisle High School for the past seven seasons. His resume, however, goes much deeper. Kelly was a standout at the youth level leagues in Leominster and the locals soon realized this kid was going to be something special.
How right they were.
During the late 1980’s and early 90's at Leominster High, Kelly dominated the Central Mass. landscape while pitching for legendary coach Emile Johnson. Kelly was also a force at the plate as well but pitching was his ticket to greener pastures.
To this day, he is still regarded as one of the best high school pitchers ever to come out of that area. Upon graduating from Leominster, Kelly moved on to play at UConn and was named an All-Big East selection twice while recording 18 wins and compiling 181 strikeouts for the Huskies. He also spent time in the Cape Cod League.
In 1993, Kelly became a member of Team USA, playing alongside the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Todd Helton, A.J. Hinch and Todd Walker. His journey did not subside there. He was drafted in the 11th round of the MLB Draft by the New York Mets in 1994 and spent the next 17 years of his life playing pro ball.
"I have no regrets baseball-wise," said Kelly, now 40. "I do wish though that my work ethic was better as a younger player. I didn’t really develop a work ethic that worked for me until I was older like in my mid-to-late 20's."
He admits because his ability of thowing a baseball came so natural and simplistic to him, he didn’t need to pay any attention to an extensive work ethic.
"I was probably five years into my pro career which was when I began not taking my talent for granted," he said. "I actually developed some work ethic and placed goals for myself and I feel that is when I became a better pitcher. Pitching and throwing a baseball did come natural for me but after I hurt my elbow at UConn, during my senior year, throwing a baseball became more mechanical.
"I had lost some of that naturalness and some velocity. But, in turn, it helped me in terms of my control and I was starting to hit my spots with more consistency. I went from topping out at 96 [miles per hour] to 92 but my change-up and breaking ball were better because of it."
Kelly spent two seasons in the Mets organization before moving into the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. He was later sent to the Seattle Mariners. Never quite making it to The Show, Kelly got as high as Triple-A, pitching for Mariners affiliate in Tacoma.
Upon his release from the Mariners, he returned to his New England roots and played with the North Shore Spirit, Brockton Rox and Worcester Tornadoes of the Can-Am League, also serving as pitching coach for the Rox and Tornadoes in his later years. In his 15 seasons at the professional level, Kelly went 96-53 on the hill with a 3.27 ERA and 1,237 strikeouts.
In between all of this, Kelly also played overseas in which he experienced two life-threatening situations. In 1999, while playing in Taiwan, he was asleep inside his 18th floor apartment when a 7.6 earthquake decimated the area. Kelly barely got out of his building alive, but was forced to sleep outside a number of days afterward.
"We had no place to sleep so we had to sleep outside because our building was condemned," he said. "Outside we were still getting 7.1 and 6.8 aftershocks for months afterwards. You ended up getting use to them but nothing ever prepares you for a 7.6 earthquake when you are on the 18th floor of a building just 30 miles away from the epicenter."
Another situation occurred in 2005. During a second stint playing for Team USA, a loss to Nicaragua, in the World Cup, resulted in a stone throwing attack by rowdy Nicaraguan supporters at Kelly's team bus. A shattered window left shards of glass in his eye. He had to be rushed to a nearby military hospital to have the glass removed.
"I think the ride in the ambulance was actually more scarier than being attacked," laughs Kelly. "The roads over there weren't paved and we were doing 100 MPH down these dirt roads. I was bouncing all over the place."
Having played for some outstanding coaches in Johnson, UConn’s Andy Baylock and former Red Sox catcher and Tornadoes skipper Rich Gedman, Kelly says the knowledge gained from those three alone has helped him develop his own style of coaching at Concord-Carlisle.
"Emile is a genius," Kelly said. "He could take a little league team to the Division 1 state championship. Andy had a different approach he was a bit more laid back but highly successful. A lot from both of them rubbed off on me and I have had a lot of amazing coaches throughout my career and have tried to take a little bit from all of them With Rich, to this day when I'm giving a lessor or coaching, I feel a lot of him comes out of me. Rich was a highly-positive influence on me in my later years playing pro ball."
Concord-Carlisle has yet to reach the level of the elite that Kelly is hoping for. But a plan is in place for that to change. Kelly possesses a tremendous baseball mind, viewing himself more of a teacher of the game rather than a coach. His personality and the support system he has underneath him here has made others believe in the potential of this program as well.
"Sometimes you get a little stagnant as a coach," Kelly said. "I have two great assistants in Josh Kieffer and Rafael Montero who have made me better. Both are energetic, offer up new ideas and have a great rapport with the players on this team. If both remain in baseball they'll have a lot of success."
Kelly also has the support of his family which includes four young children and his wife of nine years Cherie.
“She’s always been supportive of me and never once has asked me to quit doing what I love,’’ said Kelly.
Having played professionally for 15 years of his life, Kelly believes the biggest learning curve as a coach is never to assume that players know what you think they know.
"That’s one of the biggest mistakes many coaches make," Kelly said. "You can’t assume that kids know what to do or understand a certain situation. I think some of the things we already knew at the high school level 20 years ago aren't there as much and now you have to teach things to kids step by step. It is a big mistake to assume they already know things without making sure first."
It appears as though Kelly and his team are on the same page. He is well-respected by his players and administration. His practice sessions are very loose and relaxed with the emphasis placed on having fun.|
"He has made it fun here for us," senior first baseman Brendan Harrington said. "There is never a day I don't ever not want to come to a practice. Yes the practices are relaxed but we still work hard and get a lot positive things done in that time frame."
Adds senior catcher Andrew DellaVolpe, "Coach Kelly is one of the most supportive coaches I've ever been around," he said. "He also has one of the most knowledgeable baseball minds I have ever seen. He knows the game inside and out and has made me a better player because of it."
Having served some time as a pitching coach at Brockton and Worcester, Kelly says he has not ruled out an opportunity to coach again at the pro level again should that opportunity transpire. As DellaVolpe pointed out, Kelly does have a superior baseball mind. He understands the nuances, intricacies, strategy and teaching of the game and presents it well. Few would argue he would be a perfect fit for any organization in need of a quality pitching coach.
"Being involved in baseball you always look to move to the next level," said Kelly. "If something came up and it worked within the perimeters of my family then I would certainly think about it."