Thursday, November 29, 2007 Updated: March 27, 1:42 PM ET
There's much more to Kennedy than W-L record, ERA
By Jeff Pearlman Special to Page 2
Joe Kennedy died last Friday, collapsing in the middle of the night from what appear to be complications due to an enlarged heart.
Maybe you've heard of Kennedy, maybe you haven't. He was a lefty pitcher who bounced around the bigs, compiling a 43-61 record and 4.79 ERA with five teams over seven seasons.
Don't let the ordinary stats fool you. "Kamikaze Joe" Kennedy was full of personality and full of life.
Being a former baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, I thought I had Kennedy pretty well pegged. Mediocre as both a starter and a reliever, he was an unjustifiably cocky, snide pain in the butt, the type of guy writers avoided, lest they accidentally offer the wrong question.
"Whatever you do," one scribe advised me long ago, "stay away from Kennedy. He's a real prick."
So I stayed away from Kennedy.
Now, at age 28, he's gone.
And I'm full of regret.
Joe Kennedy was no prick. He simply happened to be the type of ballplayer who didn't want to be asked, "How was your stuff tonight?" after allowing 10 runs over 2 1/3 innings. See, we writers (whether we're willing to admit it or not) don't much care for athletes like Joe Kennedy. We want automated replies, perfectly crafted to fit between paragraphs four and six of our stories. So we gather around the lockers of the Derek Jeters and Ivan Rodriguezes, nodding as they put forth one cliché after another.
Again, I'm full of regret.
I wish I had approached Joe Kennedy; wish I had talked to him about living in a trailer in a lower-middle class section of San Diego County; wish I had seen pictures of his childhood mullet ("Enormous!" says Michele Hilemon, his cousin); wish I had exchanged notes on Sudoku and sushi and golf and his year working as the assistant sports editor for The Smoke Signal, El Cajon Valley High School's student newspaper. I wish I had written a profile or two on Joe Kennedy, so he could have told me about the time, while playing Babe Ruth ball, that he was drilled in the mouth by a fastball and lost three teeth. "Joey was 12 years old, and he bounced right back up," says Brian Hilemon, Kennedy's cousin. "He bought a little flap to cover his mouth and immediately stuck his face back in there." Or the time he worked in the cafeteria at Cajon Valley Junior High and snuck his pals unlimited fruit cups and ice creams. Or the time he and some friends played a year of high school varsity volleyball, just for kicks. Or the time he snagged $5 by daring to jump his bike over an enormous ravine. "We nicknamed him Kamikaze Joe," says John Kennedy, his older brother. "Joey would try to climb the highest tree, try to jump the farthest, try to ride the fastest."
From boyhood through college, Kennedy and his best friend, Patrick McClure, passed the lazy summer days by wrapping a sock in electrical tape, finding an old broomstick and playing "Tape Ball" in McClure's front yard. "Anything over your head was a base hit and ground balls were automatic outs," says McClure. "You could throw these wicked curveballs. It was just so "
McClure's voice tails off. All their voices tail off. The friends and the cousins. The scouts and the teammates. Joe Kennedy was too big for this to happen -- 6-foot-4, 237 pounds -- too strong, too powerful, too alive.
"It doesn't make any sense," says Dan Haren, the Oakland pitcher and Kennedy's close pal. "Of all the people, there was zero reason to think Joe's days were short." Kennedy was the guy who engulfed people in oversized bear hugs and refused to let go. The guy who left 100 tickets for family members and friends whenever his teams came to Southern California. The guy who would begin his daily phone calls to Damon Lapa, his agent and friend, with an emphatic, "What up, sucka!" The guy who named his fantasy football team "NOTRE DAME SUCKS" just to rib the Irish-loving McClure.
A fanatical Chargers fan, one of Kennedy's greatest moments came three years ago, when he was pitching for the Rockies and Drew Brees made an appearance at Coors Field. In the hours before that night's game, a handful of ballplayers retreated to the outfield, where they ran out and fly patterns for the Chargers quarterback. "Joe's eyes just lit up," says Troy Renck, a Rockies beat writer. "It was heaven."
Back in 2003, Kennedy's nephew, Ricky, was 3 years old and infatuated with his miniature toy Hummer. Upon returning to San Diego for a visit, Kennedy arrived in a rented bright yellow Humvee. As his uncle exited the vehicle, Ricky's eyes turned as wide as Chips Ahoys. "That made Ricky's day," says Michele Hilemon, holding back tears. "Joe just wanted to make that boy happy."
As a child, Kennedy's lone dream was to play professional baseball.
That's why, despite being an A student in high school, he bypassed major universities to spend a year at Grossmont JC, where coach Ed Olsen took a kid who was undrafted and unscouted and molded him into a legitimate prospect. Yet after spending most of the decade jumping from Tampa to Colorado to Oakland to Arizona to, last August, Toronto, Kennedy's focus widened. Last Nov. 17, Joe's wife, Jami, gave birth to the couple's first child, a son named Kaige. (She is expecting again.) It was, Kennedy's friends agree, a life-altering moment. The boy became the father. The father became the boy. Joe would lift Kaige up and bounce his son on one hand, laughing hysterically. He would hold Kaige, count 1 2 3, then let go and watch the boy immediately reach for his shirt collar and hold on for dear life. "Joe visited us in November, and we took a bunch of pictures of him and Kaige," Michele says. "In every picture -- every single one -- Kaige is hanging on to Joe's collar with such a good grip.
"He didn't want to let go."
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero," now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.