Thursday, February 9, 2023

Review: A Damn Near Perfect Game (2023)

By Joe Kelly with Rob Bradford

There probably is a good book floating around in Joe Kelly's head. "A Damn Near Perfect Game" isn't it.

The hard-throwing right-hander has had an unusual career in baseball. He arrived in the majors with an overpowering fastball and an excellent breaking ball. The St. Louis Cardinals put him in the starting rotation, only to discover that sometimes he didn't know exactly where the ball was going. The Cardinals traded him to the Boston Red Sox, who noticed the same issue and decided to try Kelly in the bullpen. That was a better idea. He turned out to be a key member of the bullpen for the 2018 World Champions. Kelly left as a free agent after that season and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he helped them win another title in 2020. It was on to the bullpen of the Chicago White Sox in 2022, where he had a poor season in his return to the American League.

Along the way, Kelly has shown himself to be a good-sized character. He has plenty of emotions in that head, and they rarely are far from from the surface. When they come out, they are unfiltered ... which might be why he might be best-known by some for literally battling with opponents. 

That should add up to be a good mix in terms of a book. Instead, this feels like a bunch of material stuffed into a bag in the hopes that something good will come out of it. The description is of a book that supposed to show why baseball is hardly boring and should be more popular than it is, particularly with the kiddies. There's some of that here, but it's scattered around the publication.

Kelly opens with an incident in a 2020 game between the Dodgers and Houston Astros in Los Angeles. You might remember that in 2017, the Astros beat the Dodgers in the World Series ... and then were discovered to be stealing signs in something of a big scandal. Let's just say the Dodgers hadn't forgotten that matter, and emotions were at a boil almost three years later. That includes Kelly, who was in the Boston bullpen in 2017. Kelly struck out Carlos Correa of Houston, and during some trash talk by both sides Kelly unveiling his pouty face as if to say "poor baby" to Correa. The benches cleared but little happened - except Kelly's expression became a bit famous through various outlets. 

From that point we're off on a journey that goes through a lot of different places - the baseball life on the field, in the clubhouse, in the bullpen. There are even some stories about his early days in baseball, time that certainly influenced by the alcoholism of his father. Kelly comes back to the matter of baseball's status along the way.

There is a surprise buried in all of that. Kelly had at first been angry with Commissioner Rob Manfred about a suspension, but Manfred visited the Dodgers clubhouse in training camp for some frank, friendly conversations - and Kelly discovered he actually liked the guy. The two men even got together after that to talk about baseball, and it is a very interesting chat - particularly on Manfred's side. 

After that comes something unexpected. The book checks in at about 230 pages, and at Page 163 we have a series of essays/statements from a variety of people from all sorts of professions addressing on their affection for the game. That lasts 64 pages, which is a lot. Since the stories begin to sound alike after a while, this becomes a matter of "we get the point" pretty quickly. Do the math, and we're only getting 167 pages out of Kelly - which is on the thin side.

The book provides some original stories (told in raw language) about life in the big leagues, and that's fine. But there's not a great deal of context to go with it, and there is some duplication. It's surprising that relatively little about those two championship seasons went into this. 

Kelly's inconsistency as a pitcher always has been a little maddening; there are great tools in play but the strike zone sometimes is tough to find. Such is the case with "A Damn Near Perfect Game," which for the most part is high and outside. 

Two stars

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