Joe Kennedy's life unexpectedly came to an end early Friday morning, not far from where his career had just as suddenly taken off in 2001.
The seven-year Major League veteran passed away at Brandon Hospital, just outside Tampa, Fla., after collapsing late Thurdsay night at his in-laws' house. He was 28 years old.
Kennedy was drafted by Tampa Bay out of Grossmont Junior College (Calif.) in the eighth round of the 1998 First-Year Player Draft. The lanky left-hander was solid, if unspectacular, in his first three Minor League seasons, climbing the ladder one level at a time while posting a 23-15 record and a 3.19 ERA and displaying his trademark pinpoint control (81 walks vs. 287 strikeouts in a shade under 300 innings).
But, as effective as he was in Princeton, Hudson Valley and Charleston in those first three seasons, it wasn't until Kennedy showed up to Spring Training in 2001 that he provided a glimpse of what was in store.
"You could tell he had talent," said long-time Minor League reliever Talley Haines, who recalled their first pro seasons in Princeton in 1998, "but his body hadn't really matured yet.
"When I played with him a few years later in Orlando, even in Spring Training, he was like a totally different guy. You could tell he was pretty special."
Kennedy was impressive enough that spring that he skipped his likely assignment to Class A Advanced Bakersfield and was sent to Double-A Orlando. There he put together a truly spectacular run that landed him in the big leagues just two months later.
"We had played together the previous year in Charleston, in low-A ball, and had a lot of fun" said Minor League veteran Jim Magrane. "We were two young guys trying to work our way up and we both had good summers. We actually lived in adjoining apartments and we had a lot of fun together.
"But that next year, he just improved by leaps and bounds," said Magrane. "I have never seen a guy dominate like that."
And, indeed, more dominant numbers would be difficult to post.
Kennedy started the season by facing the minimum in six innings against Huntsville, allowing just one base hit while striking out nine. He allowed a single run in his next start before stringing together 35 consecutive innings without an earned run, striking out 43 batters while walking just three.
"I remember hitters just walking back to the dugout laughing," said Haines. "He had three super pitches."
"Guys just didn't have a chance against him," marveled Magrane, "lefties or righties."
At 4-0 with a 0.19 ERA, the 21-year-old southpaw was promoted to Triple-A Durham, where he proceeded to win his first two games. He went 2-0 with a 2.42 ERA in four starts for the Bulls before getting his call to the big leagues.
Kennedy won each of his first two Major League starts for the Devils Rays, who were just 15-42 when he joined them. He finished his rookie season 7-8 with a 4.44 ERA, quickly becoming one of the few reliable options on a team that regularly threatened the 100-loss mark.
"Joe made all of us very proud as we watched him transform from a young pitching prospect in 1998 into our Opening Day starter in a very short time," said Rays director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics.
Kennedy struggled to a 3-12 mark after getting the Opening Day nod in 2003, but he rebounded in 2004 after being traded to Colorado. The 6-foot-4 Californian went 9-7 with a stellar 3.66 ERA in pre-humidor Coors Field, earning Opening Day honors again in 2005.
Midway through the 2005 season, he was traded to Oakland, where he spent most of his final three years, finishing his career with brief stints in Arizona and Toronto in 2007. He compiled a record of 43-61 with a 4.79 ERA in seven big-league seasons.
Bolstered by his stellar 2001 season, Kennedy's Minor League totals were 31 wins, 16 losses and a 2.89 ERA. He also helped lead Hudson Valley to the New York-Penn League championship in 1989.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.