When the River City Rascals invited Nick Kennedy to Spring Training in 2012, he was a 23-year-old who already had two titanium screws in his right arm and had experienced a nightmare 2011 campaign with the now defunct Lake County Fielders of the North American League.
“We were in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and our coach told us that the front office called and said it was going to be too expensive to fly back to our home in Zion, Illinois,” Kennedy remembered as one of the worst experiences. “We had to check out of our hotel, wait on a greyhound to depart in 12 hours and then had to double up the entire way home. The greyhound stopped every two or three hours and we did that for 24 hours to the Canadian border before we finally got a charter and when we got back to Zion, we had a game in two hours.”
Fast forward six years later, the six-foot-two, 170 pound right-handed relief pitcher holds the appearances record for oldest running independent league in the country.
The Frontier League record setting performance came on July 29, with a one pitch save against the Traverse City Beach Bums to pass up former Rascal Patrick Crider’s record of 237.
“The fact that it was a one pitch save was fitting since I have had my fair share of one pitch outings in my career,” Kennedy said.
“It’s great that Nick is the Frontier League record holder for appearances,” long time teammate and roommate Johnny Morales commented. “Nick has always been the guy to go to in the seventh, eighth inning or whenever we need a double play. It honestly couldn’t go to a better guy on the team. He acts like the older brother to us and is always the guy to go to look for answers.”
Overall, Kennedy, 28, has appeared in 247 Frontier League games while sporting a Rascals uniform and has been a solidified arm for manager Steve Brook in a variety of roles, having notched 14 wins and 14 saves while maintaining a 2.98 ERA with 252 strikeouts in 295 innings.
“I give all the credit to Steve Brook for this because I came to the Rascals from Lake County and didn’t really have a stellar performance there, or my senior year at Kentucky,” Kennedy
said. “Steve brought me here in 2012 without knowing very much about me and when he decided to keep me after that spring training, I told him whatever you need me to do, I will do. It’s been that kind of flexibility that has helped me stay on the staff.”
Kennedy remains a leader in the bullpen and is being utilized as the team’s lone veteran for the second year in a row. The veteran rule is an exemption for each team to have one player that is over the age of 27, but under the age of 30, with unlimited years of professional experience. The move by manager Steve Brook proved successful, as the former Kentucky Wildcat held a 2.90 ERA in 46 games last year and helped lead the team to its third straight postseason.
Not only has Kennedy and the Rascals been in the postseason three years in a row, they have advanced to the Frontier League Championship Series all three years and after dropping 2014 to Schaumburg and 2015 to Traverse City, it left a chip on the Rascals shoulders for 2016.
However, the Rascals dropped the decisive game five last year by a score of 1-0 and had to watch the Evansville Otters dog pile and hold up the trophy.
“Playing in the championship the last three years has been awesome and as much as it hurts that we haven’t won any of those, it was still a great experience being able to play in the postseason,” Kennedy said. “After the first two years it kind of left a chip on our shoulder and then last year we brought in the guys to do it but were just one hit away from tying if not taking the lead in game five of the FLCS.”
This year, the Rascals have the opportunity to go back to the ship and sit just .5 game back of a wild card spot with 16 games remaining.
The success of the right-hander has been no different than before and he has notched a career high four saves and a 2.86 ERA through 44 games this year.
“When I committed to coming back, I came back to win a championship and that’s what we are hoping to do as a team” Kennedy said. “A championship would mean the world to me and the same goes for Steve Brook, Josh Ludy, Tim Koons, Johnny Morales and others who have been with the team for a few years.”
A championship is the one accomplishment lacking to complete what has already been a successful career for Kennedy.
He has played in front of 10,000 fans under the lights at LSU while sporting the Kentucky blue, he has traveled out of the country to play professional baseball, played alongside Major Leaguers such as Brandon Cunniff and J.T Riddle, struck out the side in the 2013 Frontier League All-Star game and won the Fran Riordan Citizenship Award in 2016.
All of those accomplishments came when he could have easily given up on baseball after receiving two titanium screws while in college and even recently when he strained his UCL in 2015.
“What’s special about Nick is that he was able to overcome a serious injury in 2015 and still put up two really quality seasons following that injury,” manager Steve Brook said. “A lot of guys at that age and that point would have just cashed it in and said that’s the end of my career but he worked hard to get back in it. He is a great character and community guy off the field, works hard everyday on the field and is a really good clubhouse leader as well.”
While being injured and placed on the injured reserved list is the last thing Kennedy wanted, the extended time not being able to throw a baseball gave him a chance to find a separate calling and he took the opportunity to do just that and become a paraprofessional.
“After I was injured and the season was over, I decided I wanted to stay in O’Fallon and work with my therapist instead of going back to California,” Kennedy said. “With that, I knew I needed to get a job around here and I went up to Brook and told him my plan. He thought I would be great as a paraprofessional so he got me going with that and I am still doing it as of today as Fort Zumwalt East High School.”
“I teach at Fort Zumwalt South so I was able to make some calls to some people that I know in the district and vouched for him since I knew he would be a good fit,” Brook said, who serves as a physical education teacher during the school year. “He has a lot of patience and has a really good work ethic. Hopefully at some point if he is able to stick around after baseball then I will be able to teach with him.”
The plan after baseball is unknown for Kennedy and all he is focusing on right now is winning a ring that could possibly complete his playing career.
“We have had our ups and downs this year but we are an experienced team and we know what it takes to win,” Kennedy said. “The dream is to win a Frontier League Championship.”