A decade ago, Shawn Kelley envisioned a possible career in Washington. It just didn’t include firing sliders in high-leverage situations at Nationals Park in front of thousands of people. He was thinking maybe a few long tosses north, on Capitol Hill, working behind the scenes.
“Doing the real politics,” Kelley said.
Kelley is now a 32-year-old right-handed reliever competing in spring training to become the Washington Nationals’ next closer, an improbable possibility given he has had two Tommy John surgeries. It’s one he never would’ve imagined when he was a fifth-year senior at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., planning for a future he was sure would never include playing professional baseball.
A Louisville native, Kelley went to Austin Peay because it was the only Division I program to offer him a scholarship. He began his academic career like many college kids, bouncing between majors. First, he tried computer science, then math, because he already had a bunch of math credits. Then he became enamored with an elective debate-style political science course. He decided to switch again and piled up six political science classes his next semester.
“He was not what some might consider the typical athlete who is primarily there to play his sport,” said Dr. David Kanervo, a retired professor and Austin Peay’s political science department chair during Kelley’s time there. “He was someone who not only excelled in his sport, but was also very interested in academic things as well.”
On the baseball field, Kelley had overcome tearing up his elbow in his first collegiate start as a freshman and the subsequent Tommy John surgery to become one of the best pitchers in school history. Still, professional baseball didn’t seem realistic. Despite his success — he posted a 2.40 ERA with eight complete games and was named the Ohio Valley Conference pitcher of the year as a redshirt senior — scouts didn’t flock to watch him pitch. Teams weren’t reaching out to him — they had to because he didn’t employ an agent. And it didn’t help that he never played in a summer league, declining invitations to work on a golf course mowing lawns, setting pins and raking sand bunkers.
“I wanted to work and make money,” Kelley said.
Instead, Kelley, who had already graduated the previous year with his political science degree, was working on an application to intern for Rosalind Kurita, a Tennessee state senator, which would’ve given him the required credits to complete a master’s degree. Four of 100 applicants would be selected, and he was working on the essay as the baseball season came to an end.
One game changed those plans. While scouts weren’t investing time in watching Kelley, they were devoting plenty to evaluate David Price, Vanderbilt’s star left-hander, and they showed up when the two pitchers met in the first game of an NCAA tournament regional in Nashville. Vanderbilt, the top-ranked team in the country, with eight MLB draftees in its lineup, won, 2-1, in 11 innings. Price allowed one run and struck out 17 over nine innings. Kelley surrendered one run, recorded nine strikeouts and threw 130 pitches over 10 innings.
A week later, the Tampa Bay Rays selected Price No. 1 overall in the MLB draft and Kelley was taken in the 13th round by the Seattle Mariners.
“The phone rang, and I got drafted,” Kelley said. “I was still not going to go, and then my mom talked me into it. She told me, ‘You have your whole life to go back and do politics or finish your masters and whatever. Might as well give it a shot. Take a chance.’ So I figured I owed it to her and my dad for all the time and money they spent on me and helping me get to where I was to at least say I played pro ball or gave it a chance. I still didn’t think I had a good shot.”
Within two years, Kelley was in the big leagues with the Mariners as a reliever, breaking camp with the club on the Opening Day roster. He needed a second Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2010 campaign, which put his career in jeopardy at age 27, but he returned in 12 months, becoming one of the first pitchers to successfully recover from a second Tommy John procedure — while keeping up on his politics.
“Shortly after he made it to the major leagues with the Mariners, I asked him about the travel and the lifestyle,” Kanervo said. “And he said that while most of the team watched ESPN on the flight, he would normally watch CNN.”
Two winters ago, Kelley signed a three-year contract worth $15 million with the Nationals — more money than he would’ve ever made politicking in this town — just in time for the unprecedented presidential election season. Kelley followed along as much as his job and personal life allowed, avoiding cable news outlets because they were all too biased for his tastes. He opted to consume his political news by reading.
“I’d turn it off a lot because, both sides, I’d just be like, ‘Oh, come on. Let’s focus on the issues,’ ” said Kelley, who posted a 2.64 ERA in 67 appearances last season. “It’s weird, I guess, because I have the background of the actual science of it. I have an appreciation for the process and where it came from. So I look at it more from that versus just headlines and people slinging mud at each other, whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, in the middle, whatever. I try to respect the process of what’s going on and how our country is run.”
Kelley explained that teammates debate and political topics periodically surface in clubhouses over the course of an eight-month season, but the discussions aren’t as fiery as, say, those about other sports, money or celebrities, even in Washington.
“As baseball players, I think we do a good job of respecting what we’re all here for and what our goal here is,” Kelley said. “But stuff comes up in anything.”
As for life after baseball, which he has admitted is one elbow injury away because a third Tommy John surgery isn’t an option for pitchers, Kelley said he’s thought about a career in politics, even if it’s just at the local level in his community. For now, he’s steering clear, focusing on a career in Washington he never would’ve imagined.
“When I go back to D.C., I’ll dial in on baseball,” Kelley said. “But it’s definitely an intriguing time.”