"Closers wanna go out there and take everything. Because that's your money out there. You may only get 3 or 4 chances to throw a week and you want to eat. You don't want anybody else to take food off your plate."
That's Keone Kela, and that's how he looks at his job. Keone wants to come in at the end of the game and take everything away from every hitter. He won't let them take his food. He's a pitbull in a free safety's body. A lot of that comes from his upbringing. Born to a 15 year-old father and a 16 year-old mother, Keone spent his childhood shuffling around tough parts of Los Angeles. Carson, Compton, and Long Beach have all been called home. As has Seattle. Around the age of 8, Keone's mom "picked a spot on a map that wasn't LA" and moved them to the Pacific Northwest. He bounced back and forth between there and Southern California before returning his senior year to Seattle and Chief Sealth High School where in 2011, the raw, hard thrower was a 29th round pick of the Mariners. Kela spurned the local team's offer and instead attended Everett Community College for a season before being popped in the 12th round of the 2012 draft by the Rangers. Though he was raised by his mother, Keone kept a good relationship with his father, John, a gregarious man with a barrel chest and the dense muscle structure often seen on his parents' home of Hawaii. Growing up, Keone's summers were partially spent speaking pidgin with his cousins and grandparents on the Big Island, near Hilo, and that's where the spiritual side of his personality developed.
"That's what makes you rich: experiences. The knowledge and wisdom you gain from being around different types of people, eating their food, speaking their language; to me, that's what makes you rich. You may never think this person over here from Columbia or Venezuela or wherever has been through the same things you have, but in actuality, they may have been through the exact same thing. Always trying to learn something new. I'm big on that."
I've spent a good deal of time chatting with Keone and his intellectual and spiritual curiosity is genuine. As ferocious as he is on the mound, he's as chatty and affable off it. He's got a smile quick enough to make a monk jealous and he looks people squarely in the eye when they speak. He remembers faces and speaks fondly of "finding a plot of land someday to just raise my family and invite people to come hang." In some ways, given his mound demeanor, he's a viable split-personality. In every way, he's a young man who has come a long way in the last few years. A new father himself (he was due to have a child in October- I haven't spoken with him this offseason. Keone doesn't do social media, which both makes sense and seems practical), Keone's growth has been exactly what a club hopes will happen to a kid with his background, his makeup, and his gifts. Once removed mid-batter during a 2013 game with low-A Hickory, he was banished to the Rookie League, only earning enough good graces to eventually be promoted up to short-season Spokane for the remainder of the season. I knew of these incidents and asked Keone if he wanted to go on record with anything he learned from that time in his life.
"I was a little hotheaded. Too confrontational. I've always been able to handle being chewed out by a coach, but there was a certain instance where it happened in front of all my teammates and I didn't agree with it, so I kinda snapped back and gave the opposition a little piece of my mind and how I felt about him as an individual, and that wasn't the best thing. That's when I started to learn about this business and being in corporate America. When to shut your mouth. Just the basics. I still have a lot of rough edges. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I'm very blunt about everything."
Ahhhh, but the edges are what make closers. And Keone is most certainly that. One day during Spring Training in 2013, I asked him if he wanted to be a closer. A calm and quiet "Fuck yeah." was his response. (While he earned high-marks from me for his response, he's since all but eliminated his cussing...at least in front of reporters.) That shows in his mound demeanor. I asked Jerad Eickhoff what it was like to have Keone come in to close a game he'd started and he said, "You definitely get a sense of the intensity. He's got a plus fastball and a hard curve to compliment it and I like a guy who goes out there like he does and says, 'here it is, try and hit it'." Confidence is a requisite of the job. So is stuff, and Keone has that as well. A fastball with some life that comfortably sits 95-98mph, and touched 100 on a few occasions, is balanced with a breaking ball that flops in around 83mph. The breaker is gonna give PITCHf/x fits. I asked him to show me the grip and he holds it like a slider, "but I flick my wrist and pull it down like a curveball." It moves (12-6) like a curveball, so just call it a "hard curve" and move on. The secondary pitch saw tremendous growth last season and his confidence in it grew accordingly. A previous one-trick pony, the second "plus" pitch is what really separated him in the second half of Frisco's season. Bullpen power arms need two + offerings to retire big league hitters and with a few more tweaks in command, Keone will have the package.
The kid who was once a 5'2" 135lb high school freshman flirting with trouble is now a 21 year-old 6'1" 225lb mound monster. Keone is a multilayered fella who measures a lot of his success in love. And strikeouts. Here's to hoping he has a future filled with both.
As Always, Enjoy Baseball! Love Ya!