Joe Kelly gunning for place in Sox future

BALTIMORE -- He grew up in Corona, California, about 24 miles due east of Anaheim Stadium on Highway 91, and was 14 years old when a rookie named John Lackey pitched and won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Angels.

So sure, Boston Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly, who was traded by St. Louis for Lackey at the July 31 deadline, knew what his inquisitor was angling for Saturday afternoon.

"That would be a cooler story, huh," Kelly said with a trace of sympathy. "A lot cooler story if I said [Lackey] was my favorite pitcher growing up. But nope, I didn't even know who was good at the time.

"I didn't watch much baseball. I played baseball. I could care less about watching baseball when I was younger. I was either on my skateboard or playing baseball."

Not that Kelly was above stretching the truth a bit if it struck his fancy. When he received a scholarship to play baseball at the University of California-Riverside, for example, and was asked by the school's PR department to provide some background information, he helpfully included the nugget that he was related to George "Machine Gun" Kelly, the gangster. The school dutifully included that information in his bio in the team's media guide. They didn't learn anything to the contrary until several years later, when Kelly breezily admitted it would be a futile exercise to try to connect any dots between him and the notorious mobster.

So, if you can't believe a kid's college profile, what can you believe?

"Nothing," Kelly said, dialing up the irreverent meter. "You can't even believe the president. I don't know why you would believe that."

But in the quest for truth about Kelly, there are some verifiable bits of information about the man with the full head of dark hair who pitched seven solid innings for the Sox on Sunday afternoon and beat the Orioles, 3-2.

About the hair: He might not have come out of the womb with it, but pretty close. His mother, Andrea Valencia, is Mexican-American, and though Kelly suspects his speed comes from his father, Joe Kelly Sr., who was a wide receiver from Vanderbilt who went to training camp with the NFL's San Diego Chargers, there's no doubt from whom he inherited the hair.

"I was blessed with this dark, thick mop of hair," said Kelly, who wears it in a shaved, slicked-back faux hawk style, a la soccer star David Beckham.

Andrea Valencia's involvement in this story doesn't end here. She was the one who posted on her Facebook page a school assignment Kelly wrote when he was in grade school, in which he forecast his future.

"Ten years from now ... I am going to be a baseball player. I am going to be a pitcher, a shortstop and a first baseman. I'm going to be a home run hitter like Babe Ruth. I will probably still be living with my parents, but we will have a bigger house. I will still be a handsome boy. I will still have brown hair. I will invite my parents to my baseball games, and I will get souvenirs, too. When I get too old to play baseball like Cal Ripken's age, I will be a SCUBA diver and find gold under the sea. Then, I will probably see sharks, jellyfish and stingrays. Then when I am 80 years old, I will quit. I will probably have grandkids, too."

What still rankles Kelly is the grade his teacher gave him.

"I got a 'B' on it," he said. "Who gives a kid a B on it?"

It was also Andrea, by the way, who asked Kelly when he was in junior high to take a salsa dance class with him, maybe because he had been so willing to learn some hip-hop steps with his sister and her friends.

"I was embarrassed," he said. Not anymore, as this snippet from Cardinals' batting practice would attest (that's Edward Mujica next to him).

"I'm glad I did it," he said. "Yeah, it was fun."

For pleasure, though, nothing yet has come close to skateboarding. He was so good at it, a local board shop sponsored him and gave him boards to ply his high-flying craft. Only a fall off a ramp while leaping over the head of his little brother brought an end to his hobby -- his dad ordered him to stop in deference to playing baseball. But while Kelly no longer haunted the neighborhood skate parks, he still rode his board between classes in college -- when he wasn't squiring around the soccer player who would become his wife, Ashley Parks, on the handlebars of her pink and white beach cruiser.

"When I'm done playing," he said, "I'm skateboarding again."

That day remains in a still-distant future, though Kelly says he did quit baseball once, when he was junior high age, because he threw so much he sustained a stress fracture in his arm.

"I told my dad I'd had enough," he said.

But after taking off a year or so, Kelly elected to give the game another try, this time as a center fielder -- a fitting choice for a kid who was the fastest player on his team and could dunk a basketball, even though he was just 5-foot-10 and weighed 148 pounds when he graduated.

Suffice to say, at that size the big-league scouts didn't come flocking to Corona High games to see him, but he landed the aforementioned scholarship to Riverside, where the pitching coach, Andrew Checketts, now the head coach at UC-Santa Barbara, saw him throwing rockets from the outfield. The team's closer had just gone down with an injury, and Checketts asked Kelly to give it a try.

"I hated it," he said. "I wanted to leave. It was boring. Nothing to do."

Nothing to do, that is, except fire fastballs in the high-90s which brought the scouts to Riverside and won him accolades as a freshman All-American. In 2009, after his junior season, he was drafted in the third round by the Cardinals.

"I signed the first day I could," he said.

He started for the Cardinals all through the minors and did some spot starting in the big leagues in 2012, then started the '13 season in the pen before winning a starting job again, this time one he did not relinquish. He made three starts in the postseason, including Game 3 of the World Series against the Red Sox, in which he held the Sox to two hits and two runs in 5 1/3 innings in a game the Cards ultimately won on the Will Middlebrooks/Allen Craig obstruction play.

On a staff full of good young arms, Kelly retained his job coming out of camp, but everything changed on April 17, when he blew his left hamstring busting down the first-base line. He would miss nearly three months, which is why he gave little thought to the idea that he might be traded.

His leg wasn't fully healed, he wasn't pitching well, and his name wasn't popping up in any rumors.

"When your name's not even in the picture," he said, "you definitely get blindsided."

But seven weeks later, Kelly has gotten through the upheaval that accompanies being traded ("It was harder on my wife than me") and comes into Sunday's start against the Orioles feeling like he is trending in the right direction, even if the results have been just so-so (2-2, 4.21 ERA, 35 hits and an eye-raising 27 walks in 47 innings).

"I feel like I'm throwing the ball literally better than I ever have in the big leagues," Kelly said.

Kelly just turned 26 in June. He is not arbitration-eligible until 2016 and won't reach free agency until 2019. Beyond Clay Buchholz, he is the most experienced starter the Sox have and is a much cheaper alternative than Lackey would have offered, presuming Lackey would have pushed for an extension.

The Sox like his big arm and his above-average changeup. They see an improving curveball and command. They hope he settles into the middle of a rotation that is certain to receive upgrades at the top this winter.

And the funny thing about Kelly -- yes, true story -- is he wears glasses when he pitches because he can't see the catcher's signs, not even if the catcher tapes his fingers the way Jarrod Saltalamacchia and David Ross did for Jake Peavy. But when he bats, he takes his glasses off.

"I can see the ball just fine when I hit," he said.

All this time, you thought exceptional eyesight was what separated the greatest hitters, such as Ted Williams, from the mere mortals. And here comes Kelly to say he needs better eyesight when he pitches.

But what are you going to do, argue with him? Probably not the best way to deal with a descendant of ol' Machine Gun himself.