“So, do you know anyone around here? Any friends, or family?”
“Yeah, no, I don’t know anyone around here. There was someone I went to high school with who lives over in Seattle, but I never really knew them.”
It was, perhaps, an overly personal question to ask Tacoma Rainiers catcher Garrett Kennedy, who had been acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers mere days before the Rainiers’ Media Day, when he and his teammates were offered a shrimp and steak-laden buffet in exchange for sitting in the Summit Club with members of the “media.”
But I was a little worried about the guy; not about his performance at the plate, or how his well-graded framing in AA will translate in AAA, but how his corporeal being was handling life in Tacoma, Washington.
Kennedy was born in Miami, Florida on December 13, 1992. He attended baseball powerhouse Archbishop McCarthy High School in Southwest Ranches, 34 minutes from Miami, and played for four years for the University of Miami Hurricanes. Our conversation was marked by all the optimistically generic platitudes we’ve come to expect from professional baseball players, but he perked up noticeably when we talked about Miami and the ‘Canes. “I like the humidity,” he insisted, “then I know there’s at least heat outside. You get used to it. When the sun comes out I’m good.”
The opposite of Miami is, well, Tacoma, Washington.
At the dinner most players came in small groups, cramming themselves together at the four top tables to best insure they’d be able to scarf down smashed potatoes in peace, name placards perched gratuitously in front of them. Meanwhile, I caught sight of Kennedy standing pensively outside, hands stuffed in his pockets as he watched the grounds crew finish covering the field. Eventually he ambled back inside, where he stood somewhat near the tray of cookies that had been set out on the buffet, as though he didn’t quite trust his willpower enough to allow himself to stand any closer. He lingered long enough in this limbo for me to gather my questions and approach him for this interview.
As we spoke he was the vision of politeness, maintaining eye contact and nodding along, but all the while he worried the skin between his index finger and thumb, stumbling over some of his answers. When I asked him which pitchers had most impressed him thus far, a blush invaded his tanned face. “I’m not sure of everyone’s name yet - I’m struggling with that. Honestly, I was just trying to survive out there..to just try and be as discreet as possible.”
Kennedy’s a catcher made in what we’ll call the Marjama mold - much like Mike, who takes a cerebral, almost caretaker-like approach to catching, Garrett prioritizes his work with the pitchers, explaining “The big thing is creating a relationship with your pitchers, knowing what they like to do. Knowing in each situation what he’s got, what he’s good at- you want to use whatever their strength is to attack hitters, and come up with a game plan.” Hitting seems almost like an afterthought, and he recalls that, from the time he was young, “I was always told, defense first defense first, that’s your way to the big leagues...It’s something I’ve always prided myself on, through high school and college, building those relationships [with the pitchers].”
We’ve hypothesized for a little while now that Jerry Dipoto and his front office staff have been placing a premium on good character and a thoughtful approach to the game. Though Garrett had “no idea” why the Mariners had acquired him, he nodded along as I shared some of the trends of Dipoto’s recent acquisitions.
“Do you think that describes you?” I asked, hoping to gently prompt a little more about his game approach out of him.
“Oh yeah, definitely, I’m big on preparing...Knowing that I’ve done my homework, know that [the pitchers] have done their homework, so that we can come up with a game plan before the game, so it’s not just ‘let’s try this pitch, or let’s throw that and see if they’ll hit it.’ It’s all thought out and planned, written down, what a hitter can and can’t do, so we can just go into game starts and do it.”
Planning and building relationships. Two hallmarks of Kennedy’s approach to the game, but also two things that you sacrifice when you become a minor leaguer. Your autonomy is diminished, your future eternally pending, your job security utterly nonexistent. Your body and your performance are all that you have left to control, which helps to explain all the inspirational platitudes that decorate minor leaguers’ social media accounts. As Garrett said, when I asked him about being acquired by the Mariners, “I’m just trying to do my best to continue to play the game at a high level, and to help our team win.”
So much of the way we regard and discuss prospects eliminates their humanity. We grade them numerically, based on their abilities but also on things utterly beyond their control, like where they happened to be born. We analyze their physicality, often more closely than we may assess our own; and we ridicule them on public platforms, when they dare to not succeed, emboldened by a misplaced sense of superiority.
Strip away the sports element of Garrett’s story, and it reads like that of many other recent college graduates - he moved to a brand new city, far away from home and family, for his dream job, which pays him far too little. There’s an odd dichotomy when it comes to writing about the minor leagues. On the one hand, as has been discussed at length, minor league life is hard. They play for pennies on the hour, sometimes sharing a single rotisserie chicken between the clubhouse, or enduring hours in a bus to play the following day. The other side is a strange tendency to romanticize the minor league journey, to glorify their struggles because they will ultimately lead to triumph. But in minor league life there is no guaranteed triumph. Their journeys deserve to be championed, but not because of their end result; simply because there is a powerful bravery in pursuing your dreams.
Fortunately Kennedy isn’t alone in this journey. He has the support of his friends and family but, perhaps most importantly during the season, he has the minor league baseball brotherhood. When he told me he didn’t know anyone in the Seattle/Tacoma area I wasn’t surprised - the Pacific Northwest doesn’t seem to be a popular destination for Miami residents to relocate to. What did surprise me was his swift follow-up, “But hey, it’ll come fast. We’re all here, it’s a brotherhood. We all have the same goal, to make it to the big leagues. Any way we can help each other is par for the course.”
Garrett Kennedy may be the Mariners’ catcher of the future. He may be their backup of the future. He may be those things for another organization entirely. He also may achieve none of that. That’s the thing about prospects, and tomorrows: neither are guaranteed. But the brotherhood is.