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Little Man Stands Tall

Family, Faith, Joy Fuel Kemp
April 19, 2015

CORPUS CHRISTI - Take in a single game at Whataburger Field and witness Tony Kemp's joy.

It's unmistakable, written all over his face as he flits about the diamond, full of verve.

One of the reasons we love baseball is because great physical stature isn't a prerequisite for success. It's about relatability, as there are significantly more normal-sized men in the game than football or basketball.

In fact, downright diminutive guys like Kemp, the Corpus Christi second baseman, weigh in night after night. The reason? They play big.

And he was taught to play that way by older brother Corey, five years his senior, who grew into a big man.

"When I started at four years old, my brother was my greatest inspiration. I wanted to be like my older brother. I wanted to emulate him," Tony said. "A lot of my joy, a lot of my style, is because of my brother. At six and seven years old, my game was based on how my brother played. And, we are two completely different types. He grew to 6-foot-2, 230 pounds as a third baseman and catcher. I'm 5-6, 160."

Corey transferred to East Carolina as a junior after starting at Tennessee Tech and starring at Georgia's Young Harris College. The 2008 Conference USA Player of the Year was taken in the 14th round of that year's draft by Milwaukee and advanced as high as Double-A the next season.

"He just decided to move on with his life," Tony explained. "Baseball's tough. There's a mental side and most people don't understand what we go through."

Corey, who now works with an Atlanta-based shipping company, continues to help Tony.

"We text every day," Tony said. "Before the Springfield series, he told me to, 'remember how they're pitching you. Get your inside tee work done.' Ever since Tri-City (rookie ball), he's asked questions. Then, he'll provide a scouting report on me for me."

As big as Corey played at the college level, Tony went off every chart but the one for height at Vanderbilt. He was first-team All-American by Baseball America and the American Baseball Coaches Association, plus Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 2013 after winning the league's top freshman honors two years previously as the Commodores made their first College World Series run.

Kemp plays with a degree of flair, in part, because of his college experience, which drove the Astros to take him in the fifth round 22 months ago.

"When you go to a school like Vandy and play in the SEC, wherever you go, you play with confidence," he reflected. "You have that vibe. You understand these guys are good. Florida. South Carolina. Alabama. Auburn. Georgia. Tennessee. People look at you differently. There's credibility; you get that credit for surviving the SEC. I'm proud to have played in the SEC. It's a big accomplishment."

And, Cathy and Rick Kemp's youngest child (Tony and Corey have an older sister, Ashley) doesn't shrink from anything because of his faith.

"When I was in the fourth grade, my mom's dad passed away. I came home from school, and my father took me aside and told me what happened," Tony recalled. "Now, from kindergarten through fourth grade, I had perfect attendance. I never missed school. Well, I had to miss a couple of days. I missed my grandfather, and asked my mom 'how I can talk to Paw Paw again? Is there any way I can talk to him?'

"My mom brought out her Bible and began to share some stories. At 10 years old, I became a born-again Christian. I wanted to be baptized. I've never fallen away. Life is tough, and things happen. Just trusting Him. Understanding that at an early age is important."

Kemp also elevates his play because he's a team-first player on a team of unselfish players.

"It's one of the most hard-working, most-talented groups I've ever been around. You come to the park at one o'clock and everybody's here. They come ready to play and are very selfless. They'll do anything to win. One through nine in the lineup, we're trying to pick up the next person. Selflessness is the most important thing, and that's this team's biggest trait."

And then there's his double-play partner, the fellow just across the bag. Kemp has the best view of Carlos Correa in the house.

"He was born to play Major League Baseball. He's a charismatic guy who comes to the ballpark and plays the game the way he's been playing it since age 5."

And playing it big, like Kemp.

Don't expect the Tennessean to be a footnote to Correa's career when looking back on the 2015 Corpus Christi Hooks.

As Corey initially inspired him almost 20 years ago, Tony's most recent motivational figure plays second base up Highway 77/59 at Minute Maid Park.

And he goes 5-foot-6, 165.

"I lockered next to Jose Altuve at the (April 3-4) exhibition games in Houston. He just won the batting title. He didn't have to talk to a minor league player. He'll never know how much it meant to me for him to come over and talk to me. We talked about two-strike approaches. He told me, 'we can get away with things because of our hands.'

"The Astros really rally behind him. He deserves everything he's been awarded."

Kemp doesn't concern himself with the organizational depth chart. He can shine in the outfield as well, having transitioned from there to second in the midst of his sophomore season at Vanderbilt.

It's of no concern to him the Astros have an accomplished almost 25-year-old second sacker.

"I really don't think about those above me or below me. I'm focused on enjoying the moment wherever I go. I thank God every day for the abilities He's blessed me with.

"It's pretty cool when your mom texts you for having good swings at the plate."

Kemp stands tall because his parents raised him with intention. Cathy has always told him he's wise beyond his years. Tony completed work on a Vanderbilt

Communications degree last fall and graduates next month. The 2013 Commodore Student-Athlete of the Year, documentary junkie, and vintage video game connoisseur benefits from book smarts and a good dose of common sense.

Though a four-year varsity football letterman and two-time all-district performer at Franklin, Tenn., Centennial - where he excelled as a running back, defensive back and returner for the Cougars - Kemp knew where his future lied.

"I'm not big enough to play football, and I'm not tall enough to play basketball, so I think I'll just stick to baseball," he reasoned.

That was BIG for Tony… and for those of us who enjoy watching him play.