For Kearns, It's Home and Away
Monday, March 5, 2007
VIERA, Fla., March 4 -- There are still remnants of Austin Kearns's old life in his new one. Each day, when he leaves the Washington Nationals' clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, he puts his blue Kentucky basketball hat backward on his head, a reminder of where he came from and where he still lives. But the stunned expression is gone. The handshakes and introductions were swapped for a constant stream of text messages with teammates. The uncertainty of last summer was exchanged for a three-year contract, for stability.
"The comfort factor," Kearns said, "is completely different."
This is Kearns's first spring training as a National, the first time he knows he will enter a season and be more than a four-hour drive from his home on the outskirts of Lexington, Ky. Coming up, the broad-shouldered right fielder was never out of range of his home base, whether it be Class A ball in Dayton, Ohio, the next step in Chattanooga or Class AAA down the road in Louisville. By the time he made it to Cincinnati as a major leaguer in 2002, his father, Dan, could drive up the road from Lexington and be at almost every game.
"You get so spoiled playing close to home," Kearns said. "You can go home whenever you want to. You're around the people you know. Your family can come visit you.
"But then you get further away, and you realize what most guys go through."
That was Kearns last summer, the hometown hero who suddenly became most guys, just another commodity who could be shipped out. Last July 13, Kearns's wife, Abby, drove him from Lexington, where he had spent the all-star break, back to Cincinnati. Dan Kearns was going to drive up that night.
"But before I got there, I got the call," Dan Kearns said Sunday. "He said, 'Don't bother coming.' "
Trades like the eight-player deal that sent Kearns and infielder Felipe Lopez to Washington happen every year. But this one rattled Kearns, the seventh pick of the 1998 draft who has yet to fully realize the potential so many saw in him. Ask Bob Boone, the Nationals' director of player development who managed Kearns in Cincinnati, what he expected Kearns to be by now, at 26, and the answer is blunt: "A super-duper star," Boone said.
Yet he isn't. And here's a small list of reasons: torn thumb ligament (2001); strained hamstring (2002); rotator cuff surgery (2003); broken left forearm and right thumb surgery (2004). It got to the point that Kearns, an affable guy, came to spring training in 2005 wary of discussing his health.
"It just started bugging the crap out of me, answering that question every spring," Kearns said. "I just told people, 'Look, I'm not talking about it. It's over with.' "
There was, Kearns said, nothing worse than the summer of 2003. He was coming off a 107-game debut as a rookie the year before in which he hit .315. The first two months of '03, "he was just crushing the ball," said Boone, the Reds' manager at the time.
On May 21, Kearns doubled in the seventh inning of a home game against the Atlanta Braves. Dan Kearns was in the stands, and his son moved up to third. Reliever Ray King, now a National, was on the mound for the Braves, and he uncorked a ball that got by Javy Lopez, the Braves' catcher.