During June 23's game between the Kingsport Mets and visiting Elizabethton Twins, Mets reliever Kurtis Horne entered with a runner on and one out in the eighth inning. The Twins had already scored four runs in the frame; it was the 19-year-old southpaw's job to prevent further damage.
Horne was up to the task, dispatching the two batters he faced on eight pitches. In the scheme of the game, which the Twins won by a score of 4-3, it was a fairly forgettable sequence of events. But to Rocky and Kyle Horne, it meant the world.
Rocky and Kyle are Kurtis' father and older brother, respectively. The duo had traveled some 2,800 miles, give or take a connecting flight or two, from their home in Sooke, British Columbia, to see the first 12 games of Kurtis' Appalachian League season.
Rocky and Kyle's international excursion marked the first time they had seen him pitch professionally; Kurtis was selected by the Mets in the 31st round of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft and spent the previous two seasons playing in the Spring Training backlots of Florida's Gulf Coast League.
When I spoke to Rocky and Kyle this past Sunday, during the fifth inning of a sun-soaked ballgame at Kingsport's Hunter Wright Stadium, they were situated strategically on the far end of the first base concourse. This gave them a direct line of vision to the home bullpen, located directly across the field. While their demeanor was outwardly relaxed and friendly, both were keeping a constant eye for signs that Kurt might get in the game.
"We're watching him pick up his bag right now as we're talking. He gets in later in the game," said Rocky. "Usually he picks up a couple balls and starts loosening his arm up and you get a pretty good idea that he's gonna come in. So it's possible he might get into this game. You never know what's gonna happen. So when you see him warming up down there you scramble to get your video camera ready. Hopefully you catch the announcer saying his name as he runs out and you wish you could stream it live back home."
Kurtis never did get into Sunday's ballgame, but when I spoke to Kyle and Rocky they were still buzzing over his June 23 debut.
"It was exciting. It was gut-wrenching and heart-pounding at the same time," said Kyle, who is six years Kurtis' elder. "You have no control over what's going on."
"You pitch every pitch right with him," added Rocky, the emotion evident in his voice. "I was a little bit teary-eyed when he came out there. I remember when he was a little kid working hard to get to this spot."
Kurtis Horne delivers in his second Appy League appearance, June 28 vs. Pulaski (Allen Greene/Kingsport Mets)
Sooke, located north of Vancouver on Canada's west coast, might not be thought of as a baseball hotbed. But the sport has long been played competitively in the region -- recently retired pitcher Rich Harden and Toronto outfielder Michael Saunders both hail from nearby Victoria -- and the Horne family has always loved the game. Rocky played from a young age and passed on his love of baseball to his sons. Kyle is currently a coach; Rocky spent many years in that capacity as well and still "dabbles," as he put it.
As Kurtis' career has progressed, however, it has been increasingly difficult for the Horne family to see his exploits in person.
"He traveled so much, since he was 12 years old," said Rocky. "We missed a lot of what he did, like when he was 15 or 16 he was with the Canadian Junior National Team and traveled all over the place. We didn't get to see him play in his country's uniform. So for us to come here, to be a part of this, the hospitality and welcoming we got from the Kingsport management and the people around the city and the fans here, it's been probably the best experience in baseball that I've ever come across."
He continued, "It's crazy expensive to fly out of Canada, and getting the time off work. You know, his mom went down and watched him last year for a week [in the Gulf Coast League] and she really enjoyed it because moms miss their kids in a different way than dads and brothers do. You've got that connection."
"He's like my best friend," added Kyle. "It's hard not seeing him for six months out of the year. When he comes home we're in the gym together every day of the week pretty much. And hanging out, going fishing, and doing fun stuff on the west coast where we live. It's kinda cool. But it's been tough not seeing him play for two and a half years."
Kurtis went on to pitch two thirds of a scoreless inning versus Pulaski on Tuesday, and Rocky and Kyle will have additional chances to see him before heading back to Canada on July 4. They'll be savoring every moment.
"Pride and love for your kids doesn't have limits to geography," said Rocky. "So whether you're Dominican, Venezuelan, American or Canadian, I think every parent is excited for their kid to get to this level. It's part of the dream. Hopefully we'll see him in a couple more appearance before we go home, but if not they've got a lot of guys in the bullpen down there and they've got to get as many in as they can. We understand the Minor League side of it, too.
"But as his family, and as his dad, I'm as proud as you can be and as excited as you can be all wrapped into one emotion. So, yeah, I dig it."