A modest hero: Consider the lesson Joe Kelly's chin music taught the Astros

·MLB columnist
·4-min read

So, Joe Kelly’s a hero now, because the Los Angeles Dodgers reliever missed Alex Bregman’s head with a baseball and then school-yard goofed on Carlos Correa and the next day was suspended for eight games in a 60-game season.

The Houston Astros won’t be coming back from that. They have been taught their lesson. They’re probably right now packing up their rings and sending them out to L.A.

“Sorry. Love, Alex and the rest of the fellas.”

These are important teaching moments. Cheating in baseball is bad, as the Astros were counseled Tuesday night in Houston, after months of mere public humiliation. Cheat and your third baseman might very well end up on his back or on his front, but either way in the dirt, bleeding from the head, maybe dead, and very regretful.

Then all the guys who know how the game should be played could agree that he had it coming and shrug, because what’re you gonna do, it’s just the way it works, been played that way forever, and hell the guy shoulda known it was coming.

Maiming the other third baseman is as good as a championship parade. Everybody knows that. Or maybe it corrects history. One of the two.

“Deserved it,” said a former big leaguer in a television broadcast booth Wednesday afternoon.

There you go.

It’s a hard, necessary lesson. Which made Joe Kelly the perfect man for the job.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JULY 28: Joe Kelly #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers looks back at Carlos Correa #1 of the Houston Astros in the sixth inning as they exchange words after he knocked down Correa with a high pitch at Minute Maid Park on July 28, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Joe Kelly twisted his face into a dramatic pout after striking out Carlos Correa before Tuesday night's bench-clearing incident against the Astros. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

See, it’s not just about the content of the message, but the standing of the messenger. That person, in this case Joe Kelly, is best received when he comes from a place of knowledge. A place of authority. A place of empathy. Been around, seen it all. And, oh, he has one of those rings himself.

This is the best part.

Joe Kelly, who can throw a fastball something like a hundred miles an hour, threw one of those over and behind Alex Bregman’s head. Had he been listening, Bregman might have heard this lecture:

The game must be played fairly. Otherwise, there will be consequences. In cheating at baseball games, there are no innocents. Not the man who ordered the system, not the man who devised the system, not the man who hung the TV or wired the camera. Not the man who knew what pitch was coming. Not the man on the top step, or the coach nearby, who watched it happen, and who also benefited. Not a single man in that clubhouse, from the star third baseman to the middle reliever, because they knew and they went along and they said nothing and they swallowed their consciences. They stole a championship. They injured the game.

That’s what Joe Kelly’s fastball said, heard from the ballyard in Houston to a corner office in New York, that the game does not forget and that the game sees everyone and there are no excuses.

What made that fastball heroic, however, was not in the damage it could have caused (impressive as it might have been), but in the solidarity it presented. Because, of course, Joe Kelly has lived the nightmare that is a tainted championship, a league investigation that ensues and a penalty that comes to be viewed as laughably light and misdirected. He made 85 appearances for the Boston Red Sox in 2018, 12 of those appearances in a postseason that ended in a World Series title.

Later, it was discovered that those Red Sox had cheated. It was said the World Series was tainted. That all of them, from the star third baseman to the middle reliever, had benefited. The person who was punished for that was a replay room operator. The Red Sox lost a draft pick. By the time it all shook out, Joe Kelly was already a Dodger, for $25 million over three seasons.

Then on a Tuesday night in July 2020, nearly three years since the Astros had cheated their way to a championship, two since the Red Sox had won theirs, and about half a year since both were found to be less than competitively pristine, Joe Kelly looked in at Alex Bregman and considered a three-and-oh count, a three-run lead and the bases empty.

This, clearly, was not the time to fold in the face of hypocrisy, but to embrace it. Only then would Bregman, would all of the Astros from 2017, understand the repercussions of their past behavior. Someday, maybe, they will be in a place to pass along that lesson. And then they’ll remember Joe Kelly. Hero.

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