Dunedin Blue Jays infielder Juan Kelly has a different pre-game routine than most players in the Florida State League.
Twenty minutes before game time, Kelly emerges from the Blue Jays clubhouse in the right field corner of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Instead of heading to the field to warm up with his teammates, he heads straight for the line of fans waiting along the fence down the right field line.
He signs autographs for the fans who brought an item and a pen, and for those who didn't, he offers a high five or fist bump. As he works his way down the line, he waves to fans sitting in the stands, shouting greetings to the season ticket holders and throwing smiles at newcomers.
By the time Juan reaches the dugout, he's greeted nearly every early-arriving fan on the home side of the stands.
"One of my favorite things about baseball is playing in front of the fans," Kelly said with teammate Josh Almonte translating before a recent game. "I'm out there having fun and the fans come here to have fun as well. I want to make their time here just as much fun as I'm having on the field."
In the season's second half, it has been nearly nothing but fun at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the home of the Dunedin Blue Jays. At home, the Blue Jays are 16-2 entering August, the best record in the Florida State League by a large margin.
This season, Kelly has played 50 games at home and 51 on the road. At home, he has hit .289 and driven in 36 runs. On the road, he's hit just .235 with 14 runs batted in.
"We're more comfortable at home, in our house. We know how this park plays and guys seem to hit more home runs here. It's a better feeling being at home than getting up, commuting, being on the bus," Kelly pauses to laugh before continuing. "Plus, at home we get to play ping pong [in the clubhouse]."
Kelly has played a large part in the Blue Jays success in the second half, hitting .299 with five home runs and 25 runs batted in. One big adjustment Kelly has made has been ditching the batting gloves he wore in the season's first half during which he hit just .243.
"I didn't wear batting gloves when I started my career in the Dominican Summer League. I had a good year and did well. Last year in Lansing, it was real cold and I couldn't hit without them because of the cold. I used them at the start of the season here and didn't feel comfortable and didn't do that well, so I stopped wearing them and it's been good luck."
After the switch, Kelly found that he had numerous pairs of batting gloves in his locker he no longer needed. He's collected them all in a shoebox that he plans to carry with him back to the Dominican Republic, his home country, in the off-season.
"I'm going to give them to the kids back home. I know how difficult it can be for kids to get a hold of baseball equipment in general."
Kelly was lucky growing up in the Dominican Republic, a country that substitutes what it lacks in financial resources with an abundance of baseball talent. His father owned a baseball academy, giving Juan access to the baseball equipment he needed growing up.
"I had a glove and a bat because of my father. But, sometimes it was difficult. I knew many people who did not have what I had."
As a ballplayer who has found success in the game and in the United States, Kelly understands that he can be a positive influence and role model for children back home.
"For this reason, I always bring equipment back home. Kids will write to me and ask for a glove or baseball pants or a glove. It makes me feel good to give back."
Going into the final full month of the Florida State League season, Kelly will aim to continue making in impact both in Dunedin and at home with his powerful bat, effusive smile, and generosity.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.