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By JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Writer, Tulsa World
BROKEN ARROW - When Tim Kelley rises from behind the desk, his 6-foot-6 frame is imposing. When he hands you the keys to your new rental car and shakes your hand, you know something is different.
Then you find out Kelley is on his way to a spring training tryout with the Detroit Tigers and it starts to make sense.
The friendly, boyish face at Enterprise Rent-A-Car who answers phones and checks out cars and drives customers home - he does look the part in his dark suit and shiny tie. But really, at his core, he's a baseball player.
"Having baseball as your job, that's something I would love to do, especially now after working," Kelley said, sitting at a wobbly table in the Enterprise employee break room. "I mean, I've had a great experience here. But to do something I love every day, play baseball - I could spend 12 hours a day at the ballpark. That wouldn't bother me at all. So it gives me a little different perspective maybe than guys who have been drafted."
Kelley's path to spring training (he quit the corporate world last weekend and reports to Lakeland, Fla., on March 3) was tenuous.
After a standout high school career at Bishop Kelley, he became the staff ace at Wichita State, compiling a 23-11 record with a 3.41 earned run average and 259 strikeouts.
Kelley wasn't drafted after high school, nor after his third or fourth years at Wichita State. He went into 2011 thinking he would finally be drafted as a fifth-year senior, but then elbow pain derailed his plans.
Doctors in Wichita couldn't nail down the cause. He tried to rehab it, but it wasn't right. Soon after the '11 draft, he had surgery to remove a ruptured bursa sac and went through more rehab, but the pain returned the day he stepped back on the mound.
Kelley began to think his dream of professional baseball was gone.
He took his damaged elbow back to Tulsa, where orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brad Boone discovered Kelley's ulnar nerve needed to be rerouted from the back of his elbow to the front.
"You try not to ever move it, but when you have to, when it's constricted in a thrower or causing pain, there's really no good treatment," Boone said. "It just needed to be decompressed and moved out of the way. I would think his long-term future is really excellent. His ligament is good and his elbow joint is in really good shape."
"It's kind of rare," Kelley said, "but at the same time he said he thought it would fix everything. I felt tons better as soon as I came back."
After surgery in August, Kelley immediately began stringent rehab, but by November he needed a job. Armed with a marketing degree, he networked with former WSU teammate Cobey Guy, a Harrah native who had quickly climbed the management ladder at Enterprise.
"I told him to apply online, and I called a couple people I knew in our corporate office," Guy said. "I said, 'This is a guy I'm referring, he's great with people; he was a team captain, and I think he'll be really good at this job.' "
Kelley continued rehab and began a pitching regimen that included close critiques by Oral Roberts University coach and noted pitching guru Rob Walton. He worked out daily with his cousin, former Comet and Shocker teammate and current Dodgers farm hand Chris O'Brien (son of former big league catcher and ex-Shocker Charlie O'Brien).
At Wichita State, long-time WSU pitching coach and Perry native Brent Kemnitz arranged a pitching tryout for Kelley with the Tigers. David Chadd, Detroit's vice president of amateur scouting and a former Shockers assistant who still lives in Wichita, came by to watch Kelley pitch and offered him a spring training contract on the spot.
Several scouts had called, Kemnitz said, but "David Chadd was the guy that was the most persistent."
Five years earlier, Chadd had watched Wichita State pitchers at practice and saw the young, lanky Kelley throwing his fastball around 83 mph. Kemnitz had thought he could turn Kelley into a power pitcher, but Chadd's observation that Kelley reminded him of former WSU ace Kennie Steenstra - a soft-throwing right-hander who anchored the 1991 national runner-up team with his NCAA-record 17-0 pitching mark - "changed my line of thinking," Kemnitz said.
"I realized, this guy is a pitchability guy, and that's really what he turned out to be. His senior year he was probably 87-90 (mph), which is fine, but he has a changeup he can throw on any count, he has a tight slider he can throw on any count, and he has a great feel for pitching, which is what Kennie Steenstra had when David Chadd was coaching here.
"I think that was part of the intrigue of why David continued to stay in touch with me."
Kelley has been grinding ever since his tryout, renting cars by day and throwing sliders by night.
"The way I view it now is, I'm going out there with an opportunity that I once thought I would definitely get, and now it's a much bigger deal," Kelley said. "Not to say I wouldn't have worked hard if I had gone out there before, but now I think I have a little better perspective on what happens if you don't work hard and what you have to fall back to.
"I think more than anything, what having this job has done for me is guarantee the fact that I'm gonna take advantage of all the time I have out there to make the best out of it."
Read more from this Tulsa World article at http://www.tulsaworld.com/sportsextra/article.aspx?subjectid=225&articleid=20120216_225_B1_CUTLIN774698