Justin Kelly’s path to play professional baseball is a lot like the condition of the roads he takes most days to the ballpark in Northeast Mexico — a bit bumpy.
The former Stockdale High and Bakersfield College pitcher has hit a few patches of dirt and rough asphalt along the way in a career that now finds him as a relief pitcher for Acereros del Norte in the Mexican League.
“It’s not exactly how I envisioned it, but I can’t complain,” said Kelly, who lives in Monclova, Mexico — a blue-collar city known for its steel production, about three hours west of Laredo, Texas. “I’m having a blast getting to play baseball still. But it just feels crazy sometimes. I mean I’m playing baseball in Mexico right now. It’s definitely tough some days, but it’s one of those things that I’ll be able to tell my kids about, you know?”
Kelly’s trip south of the border first started when he was released on May 22 by the Atlanta Braves organization while playing for their Double-A affiliate in Mississippi, stalling a four-year minor league baseball career that started when he signed with the L.A. Angels as a 33rd-round selection in the 2016 MLB Draft.
“It’s tough because the ultimate goal is always to play in the Major Leagues, and I still feel deep down that I can,” said Kelly, who has a 1.23 ERA in 12 relief appearances for the North Steelers since signing June 9. "I just have to have the right timing, and a little bit of luck, and hopefully have some faith that things will work out.
“When I got released by the Braves, it was like ok, there’s three options, stop playing, go play independent ball in America for like $1,500 a month, or go play in Mexico for $7,000 a month. I said you know what, if I’m done playing baseball (after this year), I’m going to go play my heart out in Mexico. If it’s over after Mexico, at least I’ll have a little bit of money to go forward.”
It’s all a part of a unique opportunity for Kelly to keep playing, and at a high level, on a team that features several former Major League players, including power-hitting first baseman Chris Carter, who hit 41 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2016, one-time Angels infielder Erick Aybar and six-time All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez.
“I would say this is probably one of the most talented teams I’ve ever played on,” said Kelly, who has also picked up some tips from former World Series MVP Dave Stewart, a pitching coordinator with the team. “It’s good to learn from these ex-big leaguers. These guys who have been there.
“This is my fourth year of pro ball so I feel like I have a good pulse of how to do business and how to do my work and stay ready, but then some of these guys come in with 10 years of MLB experience, have been to the World Series and stuff and it puts it into perspective. I’m still learning, I’m still trying to pick up on tips on life and baseball, definitely trying to relish the opportunity for sure.”
As a teenager, Kelly’s career began to take off after two star seasons at Stockdale High and another two at Bakersfield College, where he received interest from several MLB scouts and Division I schools. He accepted a scholarship to Virginia Tech and expected to continue his development in his pursuit of his childhood dream of pitching in the Major Leagues.
“Justin was always the kind of guy who could turn it on, turn this light switch on and off, and then when it became a competitive situation, he was all in and he could handle himself in any of those situations,” said Dan Lemon, Kelly’s coach at Stockdale. “That’s what’s so impressive about him.
“It was too soon to tell (how good he would be) because he was an immature young ballplayer. He was a typical high school kid. But you could tell that he could handle himself in the tough situations, and when it came down to grind time in a game, boy, you were lucky if you had him on the mound..”
But things derailed a bit in Blacksburg, Va. He struggled with his control in just three appearances, walking four of the eight batters faced, finishing with a 20.25 ERA.
“I just didn’t pitch well,” said Kelly, who was encouraged by the school to withdraw his scholarship following the season. “Coming from BC where we were all kind of big fish in a small pond … that first year we were all getting looked at by D-I schools, we were all pretty good, but at 19 years old, I don’t want to say I wasn’t ready for the work ethic at a D-I school, but I wasn’t prepared for it. It was definitely a work-ethic thing, an attention-to-detail thing. Just being more mature. I went in and I wasn’t fully prepared for that grind.”
Kelly returned home with very few options. He found himself playing for a summer league team in San Luis Obispo with his dream hanging in the balance.
“It’s the middle of June, like a month and a half left of summer ball, and it was one of those things, either put up or shut up now and focus,” said Kelly, who pitched well and was offered a scholarship by UC Santa Barbara. “I wanted to kind of get redemption from (the Virginia Tech situation). I hit another gear, I paid more attention, I was lifting more, I was taking better care of my body. I was learning more about attacking hitters and I think to this day, it was a big turning point in my career, being able to get back on my feet from that. I wanted to play and I knew that if I didn’t do something, the game was going to be gone.”
After red-shirting the 2015 season, Kelly was hit with another roadblock when arm trouble forced him to miss the first two months of the 2016 season.
But once he was healthy, Kelly made key contributions to UCSB’s run to the College World Series. In 10 games, including two starts, he was 2-1 with a 3.83 ERA, striking out 35 batters in 23 ⅔ innings with only nine walks.
“He’s very competitive. That is the best way of describing him,” said Bakersfield College coach Tim Painton, who had Kelly for the 2012-13 seasons. “He’s very good-natured, a happy go-lucky type of guy, but once he got on the mound things changed. He was very very competitive. The competitiveness and being left-handed is probably what kept him in the game to this point.”
After being drafted by the Angels in 2016, it was not a smooth ride for Kelly.
He played for five different teams in two seasons for the Angels farm system, bouncing from rookie ball to Triple-A and back again. He was traded to the Braves late in 2017, setting the stage for Kelly’s latest adventure.
“Mexico is is so crazy, because some aspects are so similar to America, like we have Domino's, Burger King and you can walk around and say this is so pretty,” Kelly said. “But there are definitely some impoverished areas where I'm not sure they even have electricity or running water.
"And the atmosphere for the games is something else. The fans always have noise makers and whistles. Someone is always yelling. This is their Major Leagues. So winning is everything to them.”
For Kelly, just continuing to play baseball is a victory.
“You see so many guys just not playing anymore and starting a real life and I know that time is coming for me,” said Kelly, who married Carly Showers, daughter of Stockdale assistant baseball coach Greg Showers, in November. “Some days I wake up and don’t want to go to the ballpark. But most days it’s like ‘damn, I’m 26 and I’m still getting paid to play games professionally.’
“But like I said, there’s been a lot of luck, being left-handed, playing at three colleges, being a late-round pick, being traded … it’s been a helluva ride. I’m very fortunate and I’m very blessed to have it. You just have to stay level-headed because there’s a lot of highs and a lot of lows, and I’m just trying to enjoy it as long as I can.”