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Kevin Kiermaier's transformation from solid high school player to Tampa Bay Rays outfielder shows there's more than one way to become a pro.
Sometimes, a guy has to grow into the job.
Kiermaier remembers being 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds as a freshman at Bishop Luers High School. When he graduated in 2008, he said he had grown to 5-10, 170. After two years of huge on-field numbers in junior college, the measurements were 6-foot, 190.
Today, he's 6-2, 215. “I think I'm done growing now,” he said.
Kiermaier made his Major League debut as a defensive replacement in Game 163 last season, five years after his only baseball options were Indiana Tech, Huntington University and Parkland College, where he ultimately blossomed.
“People always ask me, 'Why didn't you try playing (pro baseball) out of high school?' “ Kiermaier said. “One, I wasn't good enough. I couldn't even sniff pro baseball out of high school. Two, no one was looking at me anyway.”
Today, Kiermaier is one of the Rays' top young prospects, a solid defensive center fielder with blazing speed. He believes he has a decent chance to make the Opening Day roster, but at worst will start the season in Class AAA, one step from the majors.
As you might expect from someone who had to scratch and claw and work endless hours, he's embracing the opportunity with unbridled enthusiasm.
“I love coming here and playing in big league spring training,” Kiermaier said in a phone interview from Port Charlotte, Fla. “I feel like I belong and I like playing against the best of the best. That makes baseball fun. It's a tough and difficult sport. If you can have success against these guys who've been playing 10-plus years in the big leagues, then that gives you much more confidence in yourself that you can do this.
“That's my thought process right now: I know I can make a good living up here in the big leagues and really contribute to this team.”
Kiermaier's late-2013 debut with the Rays came as a surprise to many, Kiermaier included. He was called up and entered the extra game at Texas that put the Rays in the playoffs and went to center field again late in the wild-card playoff game in Cleveland.
“I thought I was going to be super nervous, but when I went out there, it felt so right,” Kiermaier said. “I was on cloud nine, popping Champagne with those guys. That's what it's all about, winning and making a postseason run. I got a taste of what your life can be like, and I want to play this game as long as I can, doing what I love to do.”
Kiermaier, the son of Fort Wayne's Jim and Chris Kiermaier, was an outstanding high school shortstop and pitcher who hit over .500 and posted an ERA under 2.00 on the mound. In helping Luers to the 2008 Class 2A state title, he attracted the attention of then-Parkland coach Matt Kennedy.
Kiermaier switched to outfield and soared as a hitter and fielder, earning third-team All-America honors. The Rays picked him in the 31st round of the 2010 draft.
“I had a chance to go to Purdue out of high school, but my grades were not good enough to qualify with the NCAA Clearinghouse,” he said. “That kind of got me to Parkland, which was the biggest blessing in disguise I could ever ask for. My coach got me in front of pro scouts and helped me to where I am today.”
Getting picked in the 31st round is not usually a fast track to the big leagues.
“Being a 31st-rounder, you're expected to do nothing, really,” he said. “But I was ready to make the best of it and it was all about getting to the big leagues.”
Kiermaier worked his way up the Rays' minor league system – he even played in his hometown's Parkview Field while in Class A with Bowling Green – and kept posting good numbers and impressing with his fielding skills and speed.
He played 97 games at Class AA Montgomery last season, then moved to Class AAA Durham. Durham was in the playoffs when he was called by the Rays to join the parent club.
“It's the same game out there, just a bigger stage,” Kiermaier said. “I've been doing this my whole life. There's nothing too different about being on a big league field. It's just a lot more fans and more pressure, but it's all about how you handle it.”
Kiermaier said he felt more at home in spring training this season as club personnel and other players recognized him more, especially after his late-season appearance in 2013.
He's working on his base-stealing, trying to become more adept at using his natural speed to his advantage.
“I have very well-above-average speed and it hasn't translated yet onto the base paths in stealing bases,” he said. “That's part of me maturing and knowing when to go and when not to go. I've learned a ton since I've been down here.”
Kiermaier's rise in the Rays organization has also taught a lesson or two, which young players back in Fort Wayne can benefit from hearing.
“If someone would have told me after high school that, 'After two years in junior college, you'll be a pro baseball player,' I'd have said, 'You are absolutely nuts.' “ Kiermaier said. “I just outworked everyone, and it shows what you are capable of doing when you put your mind to something. It's going to be a great story once it's all said and done.”
It's a pretty good story already.