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Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Updated: March 31, 10:27 AM ET
Joe Kennedy is gone, but not forgotten

By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2

I don't know where I'd be
Without you here with me
Life with you makes perfect sense
You're my best friend

-- Tim McGraw, "My Best Friend"

Joe Kennedy
The late Joe Kennedy, with his wife Jami.
The days crawl by. Jami Dawn Kennedy tries to will her way through them, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second. What other option is there? Smile a fake smile. Grin a fake grin. Put on a strong front for anyone outside of her tight circle of family members and friends.

"How are you holding up?" they ask.

"Oh, fine," the widow says.

"Is there anything we can do for you?" they ask.

"No, thank you," the widow says.

Actually, there is something they can do for her -- a small gesture, in lieu of flowers or whatever it is one sends a 26-year-old pregnant widow who lost her husband a mere four months ago. "They," she says, "can try and remember Joe."

That's all she asks for, and, quite frankly, it's the least they -- you -- can do. Remember Joe Kennedy, the journeyman left-hander who went 43-61 during a five-team, seven-year major league career. Remember Joe Kennedy, the teammate who rooted for his colleagues with uncommon vigor. Remember Joe Kennedy, the boy who grew up poor in a San Diego County trailer and willed himself to succeed.

Remember Joe Kennedy, the man who loved picking up his infant son Kaige (now 16 months old) and twirling him like a baton as the boy giggled himself silly. Remember Joe Kennedy, the husband who cried uncontrollably while proposing to Jami some 4½ years ago. Remember Joe Kennedy, who on the night of Nov. 23, 2007, died of hypertensive heart disease at the age of 28.

Remember Joe Kennedy.

Please, remember him.

That has become Jami's mission -- the purpose of her life since losing the purpose of her life. Inside the Denver home she shared with Joe, there are photographs upon photographs. Joe as a baby. Joe in a baseball uniform. Joe and Jami on vacation. Joe with his little boy.

Joe Kennedy
Kennedy came up with Tampa Bay in 2001. And that's where he met Jami.
"Kaige will come in, see Joe's pictures and say, 'Dah-dah, Dah-dah,'" says Jami, sobbing between words. "I don't know what he remembers and what he doesn't, but I think he wonders where Joe is." More crying.

How in the world is she supposed to do this? To go on, alone? Heck, the boy looks exactly like his father, from his facial expressions to his hair to his belly to his gestures. "I saw Kaige's face light up whenever Joe entered the room," she says. "Absolutely light up."

Joe Kennedy was a 6-foot-4, 225-pound teddy bear of a man who seemed destined to pitch for a few more years, then retire to enjoy a lifetime of marriage, fatherhood and golf. He seemed destined to coach a Little League team; take memorable vacations with close pals like Frank Thomas and Todd Helton; father two more kids, maybe even three.

He and Jami had their days mapped out; a beautiful, blissful journey.

Their marriage would last, because neither believed in divorce and neither could imagine life without the other. They would grow old together. Spoil grandchildren ... great-grandchildren. "We always laughed," Jami says. "At the end of the day you're with your best friend. That's what Joe is to me -- my best friend."

She still does this -- the present tense. It's one hell of a habit to break, especially in the late days of March. This was Joe's favorite time of year -- the warm sun, the green grass, the optimism of a new 162-game season.

Jami can't help but feel -- literally feel -- Joe preparing for the upcoming season, hoping this would be the year he'd finally break through and capitalize on the promise that made Tampa Bay select him with its eighth-round pick in the 1998 amateur draft. Though he was often guarded with strangers, inside Joe was actually an optimist. With this adjustment, or a trade to that team, he could win 15 games, maybe even 18. "He felt this season would be the one where he finally fulfilled his promise," Jami says. "He really felt it."

Joe Kennedy
When Kennedy was traded to Colorado, he realized he couldn't live without Jami anymore.
It's noteworthy to hear Jami Kennedy speak in this manner, because the woman Joe fell for -- the one with the angelic smile and the Oreo-sized dimples -- once barely acknowledged baseball as a sport. ("I once argued with my mom until I was blue in the face that there was no such thing as a second baseman," she says, managing a quick chuckle. "Because nobody stands on second base.") She was a mass communications major at the University of South Florida back in 2003 when a mutual friend insisted she meet his pal who played for the Devil Rays. "I had no interest in being set up," she says. "Especially with a ballplayer."

So, without her knowing, the friend invited Jami and Joe to the Martini Bar in Tampa, Fla. "Joe opened the door when I walked in, and I thought, 'Oh, he's cute,'" she says. "But I didn't know he was the guy I'd been told about." When Jami asked Joe to direct her to the bathroom, he advised her that the Martini Bar lacked a ladies room, but he could gladly escort her to the port-a-potty out back. It was her first taste of Joe's kindling-dry sense of humor. "I was like, 'What's with this guy?' and I punched him in the arm," she says. "An hour into the night I finally realized this was the man I was supposed to meet."

From that moment until last Nov. 23, Joe and Jami never went a day without talking. Corniness be damned, it was love at its most authentic. She loved the way he held her; the way he could always make her laugh. He loved the way she thought -- really, truly thought -- he was the best ballplayer on the planet. "I'd give him these pep talks," she says, "and Joe would just crack up."

Back on Dec. 14, 2003, Joe was crestfallen to learn that the Devil Rays had traded him to the Colorado Rockies. Shortly after hearing the news, he arrived at Jami's doorstep, sobbing.

"Why are you crying?" she asked.

"Because I was traded," he answered.

"Wow," she said dryly. "Now who's gonna do your laundry?"

With that, Joe lowered himself to one knee and grabbed Jami's hand.

Eight weeks later, on Jan. 31, 2004, they were married at the Rusty Pelican in Tampa. Before 130 people, with Tim McGraw's "My Best Friend" playing in the background, they had their first dance as a married couple.

"It was the best day of my life," she says. "I just celebrated our four-year anniversary, and ..."

More crying.

Joe Kennedy
Kennedy was with Oakland for much of the 2007 season. No one thought it would be his last one.
In order to maintain some semblance of normalcy, Jami has spent portions of these past few months in Florida and Arizona, staying with Frank and Megan Thomas near the Blue Jays' camp in Dunedin, Fla., and with Todd and Christy Helton at the Rockies' camp in Tucson, Ariz. Though no positives accompany this story, the aftermath of Joe's passing has afforded Jami time to appreciate the family she made through baseball. On the day Joe died, Frank and Megan rushed to Florida to be by Jami's side. They went to the hospital with her, and helped make the funeral arrangements with her. "It was the least we could do," says Frank. "Joe was one of my closest friends."

"Because of Christy and Todd and Frank and Megan, I feel like I might make it," Jami says. "They don't treat me like a widow. They treat me like a person. When something like this happens, people look at you like you have a disease. Well, I don't have a disease. I'm just hurting."

The pain isn't likely to disappear anytime soon. On Monday, Jami and Kaige will return to Coors Field -- the stadium Joe called home for 1½ years -- to throw out the first pitch on Opening Day. Then, approximately two months later, she is scheduled to give birth to a baby girl at Denver's Rose Medical Center.

With Joe gone, Jami plans on packing the delivery room with every friend and family member -- male or female -- she can find. "It'll be so incredibly bittersweet," she says. "I love that I'm carrying his baby, that a part of Joe is alive in me. But I just hope during delivery that I feel him there with me. I need to feel him with me."

Another cry. Another pause. Deep breaths. Deep, painful breaths.

"No matter what," she says, "I'm naming the baby Joe. That way, I can look forward to the day when I yell his name again and have someone answer it.

"That way, he lives on."

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 anngold22@gmail.com.