Joe Kelly has been down this folk-hero road before, and he knows exactly where it can lead. Long before he became the toast of Los Angeles this summer by rattling the cages of the Houston Astros, he did the same to the New York Yankees.
It was in 2018, he was wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform, and he drilled the Yankees' Tyler Austin with a pitch in the ribs in apparent retaliation for Austin's hard, spikes-up slide into Brock Holt earlier in the game. The benches cleared, Kelly was suspended six games and fined, and those Red Sox will tell you it was a pivotal moment in pulling the team closer together in what would become a world championship season.
"I started pitching well after that happened, but a month later I blew a game and was driving back to Quincy, [Massachusetts]," Kelly says, recalling the moment and his old home during a recent phone conversation with B/R. "My window was cracked on the freeway, and a fan came driving up next to my car.
"I hear someone shouting, 'HEY, JOE KELLY!' So I rolled my window down. We're going 60, 70 mph…"
And the man in the next lane over shoved his arm out his window, flipped Kelly the bird and shouted, "FUCK YOU!"
Kelly chuckles as he tells the story.
"Boston's great," he says. "I was loved; I was hated. It was a toxic relationship I wouldn't change for the world. Even after all the fans loved me, if you don't play well, it doesn't matter."
So yeah, the figurative valentines and chocolates arriving daily via text since that late July evening on which Kelly took aim at MLB's newest villains, the Astros, nearly hitting Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, firing a "Nice swing, bitch" meatball at Correa after striking him out—and following that up by shooting a classic pouty face in Correa's direction—are still coming.
But who can tell what the future holds?
Of course, with this season playing out in the middle of a pandemic when all you can hear are the echoes in empty stadiums, gauging the reaction of a fanbase that felt it had a World Series stolen away is a little hard to measure.
"With no fans, it's not like I'm going to the park and people are yelling my name left and right," Kelly says. "I don't have social media now, so I don't see stuff on the internet except stuff my wife or teammates show me. So I probably don't appreciate it as much as everybody else.
"My wife and others tell me, 'Man, you're going viral.' I don't even have a burner account. No Snapchat. Nothing. I promise. I'm a man of my word. In Boston, I did. People around me now say, 'Isn't this crazy?' and it's almost like I don't know what's going on around the outside world."
One thing going on in the world that neither Kelly nor anybody else in this hemisphere will be able to overlook this weekend is the Astros' first trip back to Dodger Stadium since winning the World Series there in 2017, a title MLB itself determined the Astros cheated to win.
But Kelly, who has been out with a sore shoulder, will miss the Astros. On the injured list with a sore shoulder for the past month, Kelly was activated by the Dodgers on Thursday—and placed straight onto another list. Suspended for eight games after the incident, Kelly's appeal reduced the penalty to five games, a punishment that he began serving on Thursday night.
So for all the #FreeJoeKelly hashtags, baseball's self-appointed avenger won't get a chance to send a fastball high and tight to thrill all those upset with the Astros. And there have been a lot of them.
Two weeks ago, Cincinnati starter Trevor Bauer sent a jolt—and giggles—throughout the league when he unveiled a special pair of cleats he intended to wear for that night's game against Kansas City that included the phrase "Free Joe Kelly." His plan: All fans purchasing a special T-shirt would be eligible for his giveaway of the cleats, with the money going to a charity of Kelly's choice:
Bauer stood down and didn't wear the kicks after, as he wrote in a subsequent tweet, "MLB threatened to eject me and suspend me and levy unprecedented fines against me if I did. I couldn't put my teammates at risk like that."
He did, however, continue with the T-shirt sale, and Kelly tells B/R the proceeds have already been donated to The Covering House in St. Louis, a residential home for "girls who are victims of sex trafficking."
"Trevor made a good amount of money off of the shirt and cleats," Kelly says. "Let's just say it was more money than my fine, and my fine was pretty hefty. It's pretty special."
Indeed, the drumbeat of support for Kelly across the game has been relentless from the moment he stuck the landing in Houston with his pouty face. From rivals like Marcus Stroman…
Marcus Stroman @STR0
@Ken_Rosenthal Makes zero sense Ken. He wasn’t even thrown out of the game. MLB siding with/protecting a team that openly and knowingly cheated their way to a World Series. He doesn’t deserve to be suspended at all. Hoping he wins his appeal. Looking forward to seeing you back out there JK! https://t.co/Lekx8NHLRp
And Mike Clevinger…
At home, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote, "Thank you, Joe Kelly." And, "Bless you, Joe Kelly."
No word yet on whether the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is planning to nominate Kelly for sainthood. But if the hugely popular Twitter account 2020 Astros Shame Tour or Dodgers television analyst Orel Hershiser has anything to do with it, perhaps it's coming: Joe Kelly, Patron Saint of Retribution.
"Obviously the Astros situation is something very personal for us, but there's also been a lot of strong reaction around the league, so different people interpreted what Joe did differently," Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, says. "As you can imagine, there've been a lot of different responses and feedback. Joe's mindset and focus right now is on getting back and helping his teammates win games."
Says Kelly: "Not to be specific with names, but I've gotten plenty of love from players [around the league]. ... Justin Turner has been big with whatever player says something. Whenever a new shirt pops up with my face or name, JT always is the first one to find it. Once a day, he'll say, 'Did you see this?'
"Players around the league, it's been cool to see the support. Some think my suspension is BS. I was playing catch in the outfield the other day and a player for Seattle started slow-clapping and yelled, 'Kelly, you're the best.' I've had players around the league do funny stuff. I've had old big-league coaches text me things like, 'Just wanna say, you're a man of your word,' and 'Hey, hope you're doing all right.'"
It was back in late July when Kelly grabbed the game's attention. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had summoned him in relief to start the bottom of the sixth inning in Houston. After Jose Altuve popped up for the first out, Kelly buzzed Bregman, who wound up walking. Following a ground ball and another walk, Kelly fanned Correa to end the inning. That's when the two had words and the benches cleared as Kelly walked off the field. After the game, he denied purposely throwing at the Astros.
Still, as Kelly says: "The way I've grown up and the way I was raised, I don't apologize for things I've said. I'm very outspoken. I hate people who have to act a certain way in front of people. My wife cusses like a sailor. Say we go to a social event and meet a billionaire and she doesn't drop an F-bomb, I'm like, 'Babe, you're not being yourself.'"
Kelly feels the same about Bauer. "[He] believes in what he says, and he backs it up with how he plays. He speaks his mind, which I'm a big fan of."
Kelly has the souvenirs to prove it in his own life: one scar near an eye, another on an arm. Small and scrappy since the time he was a boy, Kelly had his arm cut in junior high school when he had words with a boy sitting in front of him in class and the kid wheeled on him with a small penknife, "almost like a Swiss Army knife."
"I probably didn't deserve the slashing, but I probably deserved the fight because I was chirping at him from behind," Kelly says.
The scarred eye? He went through a glass door at the house he was renting while playing in Class A in the St. Louis organization. He and a teammate were talking crap to each other, things escalated, and the guy shoved him.
"No hard feelings," Kelly says. "We're still friends."
Joe Kelly has a soft side too, which, ironically, is the part that leads directly to the Astros' incident. For those grumbling at home that "Joe Kelly wasn't even on the 2017 Dodgers," so "why did he even get involved" in seeking vengeance, there is an easy, obvious answer: Alex Cora.
Cora, Kelly's manager in Boston in 2018, won over the now-32-year-old right-hander by offering his unwavering support. Cora's door was always open, and Kelly took advantage of it. Whenever the pitcher was feeling tired or sore, he could walk in and shoot the breeze. Later in the '18 season, when Kelly briefly slumped, Cora studied old videos of his pitching. He made a video overlay of Kelly's mechanics—old and new—showed Joe and, together, they fixed some things. Cora told him: We're not going to win the World Series if we don't get you right.
Kelly pitched in all five World Series games against the Dodgers, striking out 10 and walking none over a total of six shutout innings. He flashed back to those conversations with Cora throughout…then signed a three-year, $25 million free-agent deal with the Dodgers that winter to return to his native Southern California.
A year later, as Astros players were granted immunity during the cheating investigation and pointed the fingers of blame at anyone but themselves—Cora, Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, and Mets manager Carlos Beltran—the rest of the league stewed. And some more than others.
"It's not about me on the Dodgers. It's about Alex Cora. It's about friendship," Kelly says while noting the two have a connection that stretches beyond the game. "We're part of a small community. There's not many in the world who have had twin babies. When you talk to other parents of twins … it's just another aspect AC and I have."
Cora has twin boys who are three. Kelly and Ashley welcomed their twins, a boy and a girl, in April, adding them to a family that already included a four-year-old son.
"We talk all the time because of the twins," Kelly says of Cora. "He just texted me yesterday and I was on dad duty, and he said having twins is no joke. I asked him at what age does it get any easier? He texted back and said, 'Joe, mine are three and getting worse.' I said, 'Gosh dammit, that's not what I wanted to hear.'"
Joe met Ashley when they were students at the University of California-Riverside. She was a star soccer player and the daughter of a former Minnesota Twins backup catcher, Derek Parks. He was converted from outfielder to pitcher when one day in his first season, bored, he started lobbing baseballs at teammates from deep in the outfield. Andrew Checketts, then Riverside's pitching coach, saw his arm strength and put him on the mound the next day for a test drive. When the radar gun popped at 94, 95 mph, his future was cast.
Always, he's had a devilish, free-spirited soul. The Riverside baseball media relations guide noted that Kelly was a distant relative of Prohibition-era gangster "Machine Gun" Kelly. It wasn't true—an uncle put him up to it; together they figured it would be "funny and kind of believable"—but it's followed him and still pops up on occasion.
"I was the original troll, I guess," he quips.
He will tell you that the Panda Express near campus was better food than some of what he was served in the minor leagues and, true or not, the times when he would give Ashley rides to class on the handlebars of his bicycle—and sometimes vice versa—are the stuff of sweet memories.
"Sharing is caring," he says. "And sharing was the best way for us to find time."
It's been one mostly terrific ride ever since, this perpetual underdog figuring angles, dusting himself off and always coming back for more. From St. Louis (third-round pick in the 2009 draft) to Boston (traded there July 2014) to Los Angeles, he's been a beloved teammate. As with Cora, he's always had the backs of those in the room with him. He's the first one to text a struggling teammate after a game at 1 or 2 a.m., with something like, Hey, you frickin' raked! We're going to win because of you!
"His teammates love him," Friedman says. "I think in large part it's because of how genuine he is. Just the energy he brings on a daily basis. He's one of the first to celebrate a teammate's accomplishments. He's effusive in his praise of his teammates, and he's genuinely, extremely well-liked."
And now, by a wider audience than ever.
Tyler Toffoli, the Vancouver Canucks forward, recently reached out to Lon Rosen, the Dodgers' executive vice president, asking for a Kelly jersey. Upon receiving it, he texted Rosen back a photo of himself wearing it inside the NHL bubble on his way to a playoff game.
Actor Rob Lowe texted Rosen a photo of himself wearing a "Nice Swing, Bitch" T-shirt. Rosen shared it with Kelly, who was fired up enough to refer to Lowe as the GOAT, after which Rosen suggested Kelly send a video greeting he would forward to Lowe.
Kelly immediately geeked out enough to record the video ("Hey, Rob Lowe, you're the best. I love Austin Powers. I know that you and your son go fishing. Take me out sometime!"), and now he has an open invitation when the season ends to accompany Lowe on his saltwater fishing boat, The Bigger Jigger.
"It all comes full circle, from folk hero [in Boston] to Part II [in L.A.]," Kelly says. "There's no fans and I don't have social media now, so it's almost like it never happened. But now I'm getting text messages through the Dodgers. It's kind of funny."
Of course, he's hoping that fishing trip is pushed off well into the distance after the Dodgers celebrate their first World Series title since 1988. And part of the drill to do that, Friedman says, is getting Kelly's curve—"as good a swing-and-miss pitch as there is in baseball"—back up to speed.
Because of the suspension, he will not have the chance to fine-tune it against the Astros. Which is fine by him.
"I'd definitely have to throw everything away," Kelly says. "Because if I hit somebody, I might be banned from the game. MLB hates me. I've just got to play my game. I think I've ruffled enough feathers."
Instead, he will rejoin the team after the Astros have come and gone, when the charge will continue toward why the club signed him in the first place: to finally win the World Series trophy that the Dodgers will always believe the Astros stole from them in 2017.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.