To call it a cautionary tale would be too cliché. To simply question 'What if?' would serve only to marginalize one of the most important, yet completely forgotten, stories in America's pastime.
America's pastime. It's kind of a funny phrase when the league set a new record high for percentage of foreign-born players on Opening Day rosters in 2017. And to think, one lanky 13-year-old kid playing house in a Blue Jays uniform some 30-odd years ago is to thank for the system that has made it possible for countless international baseball players to so profoundly impact the game of baseball today.
For many years, he had no idea he had dramatically changed the game. He barely watched any baseball after he walked off the field for the last time, still just a teenager with everything behind him and years of wondering and resentment waiting on the other side of the white lines.
"Hello, it's Jimy. Jimy Kelly. I'm waiting for your call. Thank you!" The voice on my voicemail is so heavily accented that I need to play it back to make out the words. I had to listen a third time to process what I was hearing and realize that after two years of looking, I had found one of the most influential Latin American baseball players to put on a uniform.
He calls back repeatedly over the next few days, somehow always calling when I'm away from my desk. He leaves messages with anyone in the office who can understand him. Finally, we connect.
"Hello! It's Jimy! Jimy Kelly! I got your letter! Thank you!" There's pure joy behind the accent on the other side of the phone. There was a revolution on the line, a piece of living history, and I'm woefully unprepared. After mailing letters to any and every "J. Kelly" found in The Bronx, New York through a public record search, I hadn't expected to actually find Jimy. We agree I'd call him back the next week with prepared interview questions.
In the meantime, I start reaching out to anyone and everyone who might have known Jimy back in the day when words like 'can't miss' and 'next big thing' were common prefixes on his name.
"Jimy Kelly? Call me." is all one response from a former teammate of his says, reminiscence clear through the short email. Everyone I reach reacts nearly the same. No one who had been on the field with him, even three decades later, had forgotten Jimy Kelly.
"He was a good teammate. Quiet," Pat Hentgen, who played with Jimy in the minor leagues, said. "Great hands, arm, and feet. Good defender."
"Where is he these days? Where did he end up?" Dennis Holmberg, Jimy's hitting coach at Advanced-A Dunedin in 1987 and 1989 asks almost immediately when I mention I had gotten a hold of him. The answer isn't a pleasant one.
"I can only imagine how tough it was for him," Holmberg says quietly. "Did Epy sign him?"
Epy Guerrero, the legendary Blue Jays Latin American scout, did in fact discover Jimy. Like many of Epy's signings, the story seems as much fiction as fact.
There to simply watch his older brother try out for the Blue Jays, Jimy, just thirteen-years-old, stood behind the backstop of a dusty Dominican baseball diamond in 1984. In the middle of his brother's workout, Epy pointed to him and waved him on to the field.
Epy had him field ground balls, the wiry child scooping up ball after ball gracefully. Then he had the kid hit. Then he offered him a contract.
"My father took my older brother to Blue Jays scout Epy Guerrero. I went only to accompany them," Jimy says of the day he was discovered by the Blue Jays. "He wanted Epy to scout my brother. Epy decided surprisingly to sign me instead. I was only 13 years old."
When the baseball world caught word that the Blue Jays had signed a 13-year-old ballplayer, the outcry around the league was swift and severe. Critics questioned whether Kelly's signing broke child labor laws. Scouts wondered how young the unregulated world of international signings would take them. If a team was willing to sign a 13-year-old, how much younger would they be willing to go to find talent?
Within the year, Major League Baseball answered that question, establishing guidelines for international prospects and barring teams from signing any player younger than 16, a restriction still known off-handedly as the "Jimy Kelly Rule".
The following spring, at age fourteen, Jimy took the field for the Gulf Coast Blue Jays, the youngest player to ever officially appear on a minor league roster. The average player in the league was more than five full years older than Jimy, and he predictably struggled at the plate, batting just .193. The following year, in Low-A, he hit just .180. Promoted again the next year on talent alone to Advanced-A Dunedin, he hit .218, the highest average he'd post in the Blue Jays system.
Despite his struggles offensively, Jimy's talent in the field was clear. He was added to the Blue Jays 40-man roster prior to the 1988 season and invited to Major League Spring Training.
"He had great skills. He was athletic, rangy, had good hands. He was gifted defensively. He could hit .300 with just his glove." Holmberg recalls of the sixteen-year-old shortstop he coached in Dunedin in 1987. "He was the age of a sophomore in high school when he played for me. I can only imagine, lacking an education, lacking maturity, how tough it was."
Compounding his offensive struggles on the field, life off the field wasn't any easier for Jimy. Just a kid, away from his family, taken out of middle school, speaking little to no English, Jimy was lost in America.
"He made a whole lot of phone calls back home," Rocket Wheeler, Jimy's manager during his first professional season recalls. "When you're that young and that far away from home in a foreign country, most people are going to be homesick."
"The hardest thing was being so far away in another country from my family. Especially my mother," Jimy says about moving to the United States at such a young age. A 2011 Sports Illustrated article on Jimy reported that he racked up over $1000 in phone bills in a single month, frequently calling home before and after his games.
The struggles Jimy endured off the field have been experienced by many international players coming to the United States, but his extreme youth exacerbated the difficulties he faced.
"For international players, education is one of the biggest roadblocks they face. They come to the United States and they can't speak English. They can't ask for anything they need. They can't do simple math. They're the only player from their country in a clubhouse often segregated by home country," international scout Nick Holmes, who has seen countless Latin American players try to adjust to life in the United States, said when asked about the experience of international prospects. "They often have no idea what their coaches are saying. The coaches have a job to do and need results, so it's figure it out or you're gone."
Jimy was never able to figure it out and found himself out of baseball before his twentieth birthday.
"No question," Holmberg says when asked if Jimy had the potential to make it to the major leagues. "There's no question the potential was there. I can only imagine how tough it was. The expectations on him were rather high. He had lots of talent, but he was playing in advanced leagues with much older players, some guys out of college."
For many years, Jimy stayed away from the game of baseball, not even watching the sport on TV. The hurt was just too much for him to bear. He bounced from job to job, his lack of education and English proficiency making it difficult for him to find gainful employment. For a time, he was homeless in New York, just one more sad story in a city full of them.
Only recently has Jimy returned to the game, serving as an infield instructor for local college baseball players and youth leagues. He hopes to use his story to help other young ballplayers in their journey in baseball.
"I wish to help other ballplayers and advise them so they can be better as human beings and better professionals," Jimy says of his involvement in the game now. "I want to help ballplayers be remarkable role models and good examples in our society.
While he hopes to continue to impact young baseball players, his influence of the game of baseball can be seen on a daily basis at all levels of the game where the number of international players is at an all-time high, almost all having signed through international free agency regulations established because of Jimy's career.
"Had he not signed, teams would have continued to look and sign younger and younger. The sooner you can get them and put your fingerprints on them, the longer you have to develop them," Holmberg said about Jimy's impact. "It would have been a slippery slope without Jimy."
Without Jimy and the ensuing "Jimy Kelly Rule", there would be countless other stories of much-too-young international prospects signing and failing.
"Even if he doesn't play a single game in the majors, his signing will be a landmark in Latin American baseball if only for the termination of child labour," Gare Joyce wrote about Kelly's contract with Toronto in his 1990 book The Only Ticket Off The Island. In years since, that impact has remained true. Although new challenges have arisen in the Dominican for young ballplayers, the age limit established following Jimy's signing has been crucial for the success and well-being of young players.
"It's much better now," Kelly said about the age restrictions affect on Latin American players. "At 16, you're more mentally developed than at 13. You're able to make better decisions. I feel that because of my age, I made many mistakes. At times, I did not listen to the coaches the way I was supposed to. I was young and my mind did not allow me to react properly."
Holmberg agrees with Kelly's assessment of the restrictions established due to his signing and their impact on future players.
"There's a direct correlation between having education and success in baseball. I think high school at least is the minimum needed to learn and adjust and allow the brain and body to mature."
Jimy has had years to reflect on his career in baseball and wonder how his life could have been different had he been older and more mature when he signed. Since his final minor league game in 1990 as a 19-year-old, he has come to terms with his career and is proud of the impact his failures have had on the success of future Latin American players.
"I feel very happy to have opened a path for other young players. I don't feel frustration about having my career end at such a young age. I want to coach young men so they do not make the same mistakes that I made. I feel very grateful to God and I wish someday to help other ball players."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.