It took eight years for Ty Kelly, a 2009 13th-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles, to reach the major leagues, making his debut May 24, 2016 for the Mets in Washington, D.C., and striking out in his first at-bat.
But it took even longer for the new Phillie — acquired April 22 from the Toronto Blue Jays — to get a true appreciation for his heritage.
It wasn’t until the 28-year-old Kelly and his Jewish mother, Diane, visited Israel for the first time in preparation for the recent World Baseball Classic (WBC), in which Kelly wore the Star of David, that it began to sink in.
“Being able to wear the Star of David meant a lot to a lot of people,” said Kelly, a switch-hitting utility man. “For us on the team, definitely.
“But outside of baseball it’s significant. When you talk about what happened during the Holocaust, the Star of David was worn for other reasons. Now to be worn for something positive and be worn proudly is a huge deal. I understand now how big a deal it was. I’d never been a part of it before.”
Born in Dallas, Kelly and his family eventually wound up in Stockton, Calif., where his parents were opened-minded about religion.
“I grew up basically with [two] religions around, but I never went to synagogue,” said Kelly, who began making a name for himself when he hit .397 at the University of California, Davis in 2008. “I learned some of very basic things you learn as kids.
“But my mom never really pushed it too hard. Mostly just when her parents were around.”
That changed when Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association for Baseball, approached him.
“He contacted me last year and asked if I had any interested in playing,” Kelly said. “He said I was eligible to play for the team. I didn’t get to play in the qualifiers, but I got to take the trip to Israel with the other guys and my mom.”
It turned out to be an enlightening and meaningful experience.
“It was amazing,” said Kelly, who intends to come back and see more of the country than they did during a six-day odyssey marred by rain. “I don’t know what I expected, but there’s so much history there.
“One of the things I said before I went over was I didn’t want it to be a superficial visit. I wanted it to mean something.”
Once the trip was over, it was time to play ball, with Team Israel opening up in South Korea in a group with the Netherlands, Taiwan and the host country. With eligible star players like Ryan Braun, Ian Kinsler and Kevin Pillar opting out, little was expected from the team.
That’s what made their performance — sweeping Pool A, then upsetting Cuba in the next round in Tokyo, before losses to the Netherlands and Japan knocked them out of the competition — all the more rewarding. That was especially true when they began to hear about the following they were getting back home.
“That’s probably the coolest part of it,” said Kelly, who, batting second and playing second base, hit .250 with six runs scored. “I have a ton of Jewish friends and non-Jewish friends who were following.
“Then we heard players were sitting around in the clubhouses in spring training watching us, because we were an underdog story. So a lot of people were behind us — a group of guys thrown together based on heritage.”
Kelly said the team’s performance should make recruiting players easier for future WBCs.
Kelly has since left the WBC behind to get back to his current job. He made the Mets’ opening-day roster out of spring training, but was demoted a few days later and claimed by Toronto. But Phils General Manager Matt Klentak said the team’s always been intrigued by Kelly and seized the opportunity to pick him up.
The Phillies are the sixth organization he’s belonged to — Orioles, Mariners, Cardinals, Jays (twice) and Mets — as he’s played in minor league cities ranging from Aberdeen, Md., to Las Vegas.
Maybe it was his tenacious Jewish side that kept him plugging away, believing someday it would all pay off.
“For a lot of guys on the fast track here, a lot of their lives they considered it as a certainty,” Kelly said. “For me, I was never sure I was going to make it.
“Taking eight years and about a thousand minor league games, I appreciate that just being here is a huge accomplishment. I’m able to take it a day at time.
“I haven’t played my best baseball yet. I’m getting better every day, and if I play up to my capabilities, the future is still bright for me. I bring a lot to the table.”
So just what should Phillies fans expect to see from No. 15?
“I can do a little bit of everything,” said Kelly, who hit .237 with one homer and seven RBIs in 59 at-bats last year. “I can play all over the field and switch hit. In the National League, there’s tons of double switches and opportunities to pinch-hit in the pitcher’s spot. So versatility is the key.”
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