Port Allegany Reporter Argus
May 26, 2011
Before Port Allegany started its own high school baseball program, students who wanted to play had to catch the bus over the hill to Shinglehouse for practices and games as part of a co-op agreement with Oswayo Valley, a trip the players jokingly called the “squirrel trail.”
Little did pitcher Josh Kinney know that those rides through the northern Pennsylvania woods would lead to a World Series ring and an 11-year – and counting – professional baseball career.
“I don’t think you could ever plan it like this. I count my blessings every day,” the 1997 Port High grad says during a Sunday-morning chat in Buffalo, where his Charlotte Knights are preparing to play the Bisons that afternoon. “When I look back on stuff like that, it’s just funny how it all works, because I didn’t think I’d be playing baseball for a living. I just always played because it’s what I like to do.
“But I really cherish those memories and those times,” he adds. “Guys don’t get to do that now, because we’ve got our own team.”
Kinney spent 10 years in the St. Louis organization, going from the unimaginable high of the 2006 World Series championship run to the low of reconstructive surgery on his elbow the next spring and the lengthy rehab which followed. He finished with a 1-4 record for their Class AAA affiliate in Memphis in 2010, earning 17 saves and compiling a 1.80 ERA in 56 appearances, but his time with the Cardinals came to a close when they removed him from their 40-man roster and allowed him to become a free agent after the season.
“When they took me off, I was pitching really well, felt great. It was one of those things where I never really understood what was going on,” he says. “In baseball, as a player, you have a perspective from the player’s view. You don’t know what owners and managers are thinking. But when they took me off, they kept giving me lip service, telling me, ‘We can still call you back up. We’ve still got plans for you. We were just trying to trade for someone and our roster was full, so you were a guy we thought we could take off without anybody grabbing you.’ Stuff like that. Then I tried to get traded and they wouldn’t trade me, so they just basically let me sit there. I really still don’t know why, but that’s neither here nor there. I finished the year and had one of the best years I’ve ever had. You look at my numbers, they speak for themselves.”
While the Cards were no longer interested in his services – a stark reminder that at its highest levels, baseball is as much a business as a game – at least four other teams were. Kinney chose the Chicago White Sox from the offers he received, thinking it was his best chance to get back to the big leagues, but for now he’s with their Triple-A team in Charlotte.
“In the offseason – you’re looking at November when I signed with these guys – at that time, they had lost several guys out of their bullpen. They only had four or five guys returning to their pen, so it looked like it would be a good fit. Then they signed a bunch of guys after that, and here we are,” he says, then shrugs. “But that’s the way it goes. All you can really do is just play the game and do your best, and hopefully it works out.”
Signing with Chicago meant plenty of adjustments for Kinney, including a move to North Carolina and his first trip through the International League.
“I was pretty excited about it, to tell you the truth,” he says. “Being that it’s a totally new league, every park I go to is new. After playing as long as I’ve played, it’s neat to have something fresh, wear a different-colored uniform. I wore red for 10 years – wouldn’t change it – but red cleats every day for 10 years, and all of a sudden I got a pair of black ones sent to me. It’s like, ‘What is this?’
“But the change has been good. I really like our team. I like our coaches a lot – our manager, our pitching coach here, our hitting coach. They’re good people that know the game, that played it, so you have respect for them. It’s good. I’m enjoying it.”
The respect is mutual from Knights manager Joe McEwing, a former major-leaguer who split time between four teams during a nine-year pro career.
“He’s a pro’s pro,” McEwing says. “He’s taken guys under his wing and showed them the right way. He leads by presence and by example, the way he goes about his business every day. Guys can look at it and say, ‘This is what it takes to get to the big leagues.’ I’m very fortunate to be in a situation where I have a veteran leader like Josh – the type of person he is, and the way he goes about his business – and that doesn’t even mention what goes on on the field. He’s an outstanding pitcher, and hopefully we can get him back to the big leagues.”
One other change in his job description: Because the White Sox are an American League team which uses the designated hitter, batting practice is a thing of the past.
“I haven’t swung a bat since I’ve been over here, and that’s fine with me. Those days are over,” he says with a laugh. “Any more, I’d go swing and I’d be sore from swinging it, so I don’t care anymore. Besides, I hit last year. My last at-bat, I got a hit.”
Saturday night was a good one for Kinney. Walking to the mound in the bottom of the seventh inning with a two-run lead, he rolled up five strikeouts in two scoreless innings of work, handed the game over to closer Brian Bruney for the save in Charlotte’s 6-3 win, and got a hug from mom Debbie outside the clubhouse afterward.
“This is awesome. I got to see my family last night. To me, that’s wonderful,” he says. “Today, I’m going home after the game, and I haven’t been home in the summertime since I was in college. Just getting to see familiar faces has been nice. You know, actually, I was thinking about that last night …”
Kinney goes on to note that on seemingly every Knights road trip, someone from Port Allegany – which he still considers home, no matter where he’s playing – has shown up at a game.
“It’s been great,” he says. “I didn’t get that with the Cardinals. It was so far away from home that you just didn’t run into people. In the big leagues, I had people come to Pittsburgh, Washington, New York … But it’s different when you’re in the big leagues. You really don’t have as much time to spend, and do everything. So I’m excited to be here.”
The biggest adjustment of all had nothing – and everything – to do with Kinney’s baseball career, when wife Jorni delivered the couple’s first child, son Saxton Thomas Robert, shortly before he left for spring training. How’s the new dad doing?
“It’s awesome,” he says. “I don’t know how it happened so quick. You look at this game, you’ve honestly got to be kind of selfish to play baseball and do it at a high level. You’ve just got to be committed to it; I don’t know how to describe it other than that. You’ve got to be committed to the game – the work, the time here – and I’ve always been good with that.
“Now, there’s somebody more important. I’ve got a wife, and now I’ve got a son. I realized when I got married, you know what? There’s a lot more to today than how many runs I give up or how many strikeouts I get, how bad I pitch or how good I pitch. Now it’s not about me, it’s about my family.
“I went through that with my wife a little bit, but it’s a lot easier dealing with an adult. You can reason with them,” he jokes before quickly adding, “I love being married. And now we have a son, and it’s just wonderful. I mean, it’s so nice to come home and see him, to have him puke on me or whatever else he does, but we’re just having a blast. Aside from the no-sleep part” – Kinney’s stellar outing against Buffalo becomes even more impressive when he explains that he’d gotten only two hours of shuteye the night before – “it’s been great. Had to learn how to change diapers, I’ve been peed on several times, and I wouldn’t change it. Love it.
“It’s so hard for me just to go on an eight-day road trip. Yesterday, I had to kiss them goodbye. Kiss my wife, kiss the baby, kiss the dog … Before, it was no big deal. Now, I come home and he’s doing stuff different. When we came home from the last eight-day road trip, it looked like he grew, he gained a pound or something. His hair looks different, and he’s grabbing stuff, and blowing bubbles, so I don’t know what he’ll be doing this time. It’s great.”
While the 32-year-old Kinney misses his young family on the road, it doesn’t sound like he’s ready to make the transition from professional baseball player to stay-at-home father just yet.
“The competitive side of me, I love it. I don’t know if it’ll ever go away,” he says. “Last night was great going out there, close game, my family’s here. And obviously I’ve still got a little bit of stuff. I got some guys out.
“I feel good, as far as my age and my body. I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t thought about what I’d do if it was over, being what I went through with my arm and now that I have a family. But I feel too good, and I still love it too much, to just quit.”
Kinney doesn’t get into Sunday’s game, as the Bisons rough up Knights starter Matt Zaleski on their way to a 7-5 win. But he’s all smiles as he heads for the clubhouse door – the first player out – dropping into the coaches’ room on the way by to tell them, “See you tomorrow. I’m going to go home and shoot a turkey.”
McEwing tells him that if he gets one, to bring it back with him and they’ll have the Bisons’ chefs cook it for them. A coach adds, “Get a deer and we’ll cut that bad boy up, too.”
Everyone laughs, and Kinney heads out the door, shouldering his backpack and walking down the hallway to his waiting rental car.
© Lori Chase, 2011.