© 2005 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
02/22/05 8:00 AM ET
Kelly saved by higher calling
Former outfielder overcame external, internal obstacles
By Gary Washburn / MLB.com
BALTIMORE -- The young boy from Philadelphia, the one who would go to Connie Mack Stadium with his baseball-consumed father to watch the Phillies play the Brooklyn Dodgers, was letting his daddy down with his uninhibited lifestyle. Pat Kelly was a big-city kid who reached the Major Leagues by playing in some of baseball's most desolate and unprogressive locales in the 1960s, battling racism and segregation to accomplish his lifelong goal of playing professionally. After becoming a full-time Major League player in 1969, Kelly enjoyed the fruits of his labor as did many of his peers during the wild 1970s. That meant partying a little too hard, which only made Kelly typical in an unrestrained era. Kelly was just another ballplayer who placed too high a priority on personal gratification. "I was just living a wretched life," he said. "I wasn't proud of the lifestyle I was living -- drugs, alcohol, partying. I am not saying it was for everybody but it was for me." Kelly, the former Oriole outfielder, said his revelation did not resemble some clichéd scene from a TV movie. He said he was introduced to God in 1975 while playing with the Chicago White Sox. Kelly felt a higher calling, and his religion would serve as his foremost inspiration for the remainder of his baseball career. "Win or loss, regardless of what happened in the game, I always felt so much joy," he said. "I remember once Jim Palmer went to (Orioles manager) Earl Weaver to tell me to shag fly balls instead of talking with the fans. But I enjoyed shaking hands and talking with the fans so much. I felt so free." Kelly is now an evangelist who is the coordinator of Life Line Ministries, an organization based in the Baltimore area that preaches faith and helps inner city children. Kelly has traveled to places such as India, Kenya and Nigeria to spread his word. While many players embrace coaching or pursue business interests when their days are over, Kelly knew he wanted to pursue his ministry and began working for his father-in-law's Christian outreach program after he was released by the Cleveland Indians prior to the 1982 season. It was a new life for Kelly, one he said is much more fulfilling than hitting a grand slam.
But he still has vivid memories of his playing days, including heading to the deep South to play in the minor leagues. The only thing that pulled him through those experiences was his convictions.
Kelly's favorite player growing up in Philadelphia was Jackie Robinson and watching Robinson's flawless play with the Brooklyn Dodgers encouraged him to pursue baseball. The youngest of nine siblings, Kelly grew up in an athletic family. His brother, Leroy, played 10 seasons with the Cleveland Browns, and Pat signed with the Minnesota Twins as an undrafted free agent in 1962.
Sent to the Twins' Rookie League team in Florida, Kelly was exposed to segregation for the first time when black players were assigned to different quarters than their white counterparts. They were together on the field, knocking in each other with base hits or turning double plays, but when the game ended, they were forced to go separate ways.
"I know those times were hard but what always kept me going was what Jackie Robinson went through," Kelly said. "We had gotten to that point because of the sacrifices of the men before me. Men were bloodied, lynched and who knows what else so we could get the opportunity to play baseball."
It would take much more than blatant racism or discrimination to curtail Kelly's dream of playing in the Major Leagues. But he had to take a stand. After dominating Class A Wilson (N.C.) in 1965, Kelly said he thought he was headed to Double-A Charlotte for the next season. Instead, he was optioned to Wilson again.
At 22 years old, Kelly's career hit a crossroads. He was being set up to fail. If he flourished again at Wilson, he wouldn't have really proved anything. But if he faltered, he would likely be be passed by other prospects and lose his standing in the organization.
So in his own personal way, Kelly made a statement.
"When I found out I didn't make the Charlotte team, I packed up my Pontiac LeMans and told them I was leaving camp if they did not put me on the Charlotte roster by noon," he said. "And they agreed. They gave me a Major League contract and I made my big league debut about a year later."
Kelly played parts of two seasons with the Twins before being selected by Kansas City in the 1969 expansion draft. He was dealt to the Chicago White Sox after the 1970 season, where he he played for five years until being acquired by the Orioles.
Even before his religious revelation, Kelly tried not to harbor any bitterness about racism or discrimination. The same can't be said for former teammate Richie Allen, a tremendous player who was considered surly because of perceived racist practices of the game in the late 1960s and early '70s.
"Some players become deeply embittered," he said. "Richie Allen went though a great deal and maybe he never got over that. As for myself, I got through it and certainly it isn't nice. Nobody likes to be separate. That was life and at that time, that was part of the deal."
After his revelation, Kelly spent the remainder of his career spreading the word of Christ to his teammates, players from opposing teams and even fans.
Unlike in today's athletic landscape, where religion and sport are constantly intertwined, those two entities were rarely combined 30 years ago. Kelly admits his love of God and love for the game didn't always go over well with Weaver.
"Some people would ask why I was always happy, regardless of the outcome of the game," he said. "But that's just how I felt. I felt glory and I knew I had a higher calling. I wanted to win like I did before, but I was a different person."
Kelly had several shining moments on the field. He was named to the 1973 All-Star team, hitting .280 with 22 stolen bases that season for Chicago. And he was a pivotal player in the Orioles' run to the World Series, hitting .364 with one homer and four RBIs in the 1979 ALCS against the California Angels.
Kelly thought that would result in a bigger role in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he saw just four at-bats. After two more seasons of part-time play, Kelly plunged himself into the next phase of his life.
Drastically different from the former athletes who tend to dwell on their past accomplishments, Kelly is not proud of the person he was before his revelation. He would much rather talk about saving souls than saving a game with a leaping catch.
"I gained a far greater life," he said. "(God) took a no-good, rotten ballplayer and made something out of me. That's why I preach the word. I've risen upon the circumstance. I am not all that I ought to be, but I thank God I am not what I used to be. I preach to white and black, rich and poor, and that's what fulfills me now."
Gary Washburn is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.