Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” a tell-all book by the former knuckleballer as he struggled through the 1969 season, is regarded as a classic piece of baseball literature.
So when I received an advance copy of the new book by Chicago White Sox reliever Joe Kelly, I was excited about the opportunity to hear all the interesting behind-the-scenes stories of the Sox’s 2022 season.
What would Kelly have to say about embattled manager Tony La Russa being booed by Sox fans? Or the Tim Anderson-Josh Donaldson beef? Or his own struggles with his new team after signing a two-year, $17 million deal following the lockout? Any anecdotes or untold stories from one of the most agonizing and disappointing seasons in franchise history would suffice.
Unfortunately, “A Damn Near Perfect Game,” written with Boston baseball writer Rob Bradford, has little of the self-effacing humor of Bouton’s classic and none of the dirt that makes a tell-all worth telling. And for Sox fans, it has nothing new about Kelly’s experiences last season, when he recorded a 6.08 ERA in 43 appearances and also was booed on a few occasions.
The book, scheduled to be released in spring training, is mostly a compilation of grievances from Kelly, along with some suggestions on how to sell the game to young fans and a one-on-one with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. The final chapter, which makes up nearly 30% of the book, is a collection of first-person thoughts on baseball from the likes of Cubs manager David Ross, actors Rob Lowe and Jon Hamm, TV personality Andy Cohen and many others.
If you’re a fan of Kelly, you no doubt will love his blunt, often profane takes on the game. If you dislike Kelly, you probably won’t bother to read it in the first place. If you have no idea who Joe Kelly is, the first chapter on his famous “pouty face” episode with the Los Angeles Dodgers provides all you need about him.
Here are five takeaways from Kelly’s book.
We already knew this, of course, and Kelly reminds us he “hated” the Astros in the first sentence.
“Why?” he writes. “Well if you watched another team cheat their way to a world championship at your expense, you might have some hard feelings as well.”
The book begins with the Astros-Dodgers series in July 2020. Kelly and his teammates were upset that Astros players hadn’t been punished by MLB for the sign-stealing scandal and needed “some comeuppance.”
Kelly threw a fastball over the head of Alex Bregman. After a groundout, Astros manager Dusty Baker told Kelly to “just get on the mound, little (bleep).” Kelly struck out Carlos Correa and said, “Nice swing, (bleep).” Correa stared back. Kelly responded with a facial expression — and the “pouty face” that quickly became an internet meme. It’s also on the cover of the book.
He devotes a few thousand words to the unfairness of his suspension and more on the pouty face. In fact, “Pouty Face” would have been a better name for the book.
Anger issues are a frequent topic. While growing up, Kelly often fought with his dad, who he writes was an alcoholic. Kelly once punched him while playing basketball, but they mended fences eventually.
Kelly writes that he once told harassing New York Yankees fans to meet him at the team bus. During the 2020 playoffs in the bubble in Arlington, Texas, MLB asked his wife, Ashley, to persuade him to meet with Correa and agree not to fight. He writes that Ashley told them, “Joe’s crazy,” and declined the request. Kelly wanted to go wait for the Astros, who stayed at the same hotel: “You’re not going to tell me when I fight or don’t fight.”
As a Boston Red Sox reliever in 2018, Kelly ignited a fight with the Yankees by throwing at Tyler Austin. Kelly writes that he went “from zero to hero” in Boston. A few weeks later, he spotted Austin in Times Square while in a car. Kelly told his agents to “let me out of the car” so he could fight the Yankees player. They locked the doors.
After establishing himself as a reliable setup man, Kelly hoped to stay with the Dodgers when he became a free agent after the 2021 season. He had been a key reliever since their 2020 championship team but suffered a torn biceps during the 2021 postseason and wasn’t available to start the 2022 season.
His agent told him the White Sox “distinguished themselves from the competition.” He was shocked, writing the Sox never showed interest. Kelly writes he liked the “badass black-and-white uniform” and his second thought was: “Holy crap, La Russa!”
He liked the idea of playing for the manager, writing: “I knew what La Russa wanted, and he knew I could deliver. There was no hemming or hawing. No demand for medical evaluation.”
Kelly and his wife were sold. He doesn’t write about his injury-marred season or much at all about the Sox.
Chapter 6 begins with Cease’s poem, “O Slider slide,” and Kelly writes that “before Dylan’s starts throughout 2022, he would grace us with a dramatic reading of his work of art.”
Kelly believes that the game’s “biggest challenge” is making sure fans understand players are “humans whom you might be interested in beyond the basics of a baseball field.” He claims a “big part” of why he was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Red Sox in 2014 was that he had “too much personality.” But he also blames players for not being more vocal and cites an interview with a Chicago radio station in which he called Josh Donaldson a “(bleep).”
“If I know something is right to say, I’m going to say it,” Kelly writes. “I don’t give a (bleep), and neither should all these other players saying the same thing.”
He acknowledged that some people will hate you: “You can’t be liked by everyone, so why do you keep trying?”
That seems to be the point of the book.
With the Sox starting the season against the Astros and Correa back with the Minnesota Twins, it won’t take long to find out what opposing players think of Kelly’s writing.