Ian KennedyIan Kennedy : Ups and Downs

It was a beautiful February day. I was totally relaxed, leaning on a railing watching the players below me in the Arizona sun. Most were standing in the outfield shagging flies or talking, fairly oblivious to the crack of the bat coming from off in the distance, and the balls that would occasionally roll harmlessly pass their feet. The San Diego Padres were getting ready for the coming season. No game today.

Tomorrow, the first game of spring training would begin with the Seattle Mariners, the team with whom they share this beautiful complex. And every day after that would be full speed ahead. But not today.

Josh Ishoo of the Padres media relations office came by. “Ian knows you’re here,” he said. “Just grab him when he comes up.” My eyes began to focus on a player jogging along the outfield track from right to center to left field. This would be the player I needed to meet.

Ian Kennedy had only been a member of the Padres for less than a year. In the previous three seasons, from 2010 to 2013, he had been a successful pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and before that with the New York Yankees. With the Diamondbacks, the right hander had been their opening day pitcher for three years straight.

Our first meeting came as he made his way up from the field toward the clubhouse. “Hey, Tom,” he said after I introduced myself. “I got a text from a friend that said you were coming.” It was another hour or so, before we finally sat down together at a picnic table outside the batting cages. Ian had to ice down his shoulder, get his lunch, and was “hijacked” by a Japanese TV crew on his way to our meeting. But by the time we began to talk, I felt like we had been friends for life. And from the time he sat down, it was obvious there was something different about this major league ballplayer.

Kennedy was a first round draft choice by the New York Yankees in 2006. He was a southern California kid, who had been playing for the legendary program at the University of Southern California. He debuted in the big leagues in 2007, and everything looked like he had imagined it would be as a young boy. “I was warming up, and the catcher threw the ball down to second. It went to Cano, then to A-Rod, then to Jeter, then it came to me, and I thought, ‘Man, I’m actually playing with these guys.’ ”

All seemed well, but Ian’s fortunes took a downturn in 2008. As a Christian, he was leading team Bible studies, and trying to be a good Christian, but he was struggling on the mound. “I found out I was holding the baseball a little tighter than I probably should have,” he said. “I was in my hotel room in Chicago, after a bad outing in Tampa. I called my wife. I told her, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I have never pitched like this before.’ We prayed, and I had a really big relief. I said, ‘God, I’m holding this way too tight. I want to surrender my game to you.’ ”

Kennedy’s pitching got better, but his troubles were not over. In May of 2009, the fingers on his right hand became numb. It was discovered that he had an aneurysm under his armpit. He had surgery and did not return to the team until September. The Yankees would go on to win the World Series, but Kennedy was limited to one inning in the playoffs, and was not on the World Series roster. “I would have been devastated,” he said, “if I had not gone through that incident in Chicago.”

Since that time, Kennedy has experienced the ups and downs of being a major league pitcher. After the 2009 season, he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and for three years, he had tremendous success. In 2011, the Diamondbacks won their division after finishing last the year before. Ian was a 21 game winner, and led the National League in wins. But during the 2013 season, more struggles emerged. After the All-Star break, he was traded to the Padres.

The difference for the big right hander these days is not what happens on the field, as much as what is going on in his heart. He wants to be successful spiritually as well as on the mound. “It (spiritual success) is just living it out, walking it,” he says. “For me, it is just staying in the Word and keep talking it.”

He has two gloves, each with a different verse. Jeremiah 29:11 is on the one, but this year he added a glove with I Peter 5:5, which says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” That humility showed brightly on that warm spring day.

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