PHOTO: Houston’s Tony Kemp races home against the Seattle Mariners on June 6, 2018. // HOUSTON ASTROS
By RUSSELL VANNOZZI
Tony Kemp has always appeared to be a happy guy with an infectious personality, leaving other players, coaches and fans smiling throughout his baseball career.
After starring at Centennial High School and at Vanderbilt, Kemp’s athletic prowess and playful nature are now on full display for the reigning-world-champion Houston Astros.
“He’s a genuinely happy guy,” Centennial baseball coach Rob Baughman said. “He was the same way in high school. We’d be in the weight room and it would never fail – I’d look at my phone for something and he had already grabbed it and put his face on my screensaver. He’s always messing around.”
Success at the plate, in the outfield
Kemp may be having fun, but he’s certainly not messing around on the field. The speedster is hitting .309 in his third season with the team after shuttling back-and-forth between Houston and Triple-A Fresno over the last two seasons.
The outfielder also continues to make dramatic diving catches, including one in which he crashed into the leftfield wall during an 8-2 win over Cleveland on May 24. He quickly recovered and cranked his second major league home run two days later.
“I definitely have to hit the ice bath a couple times per week to make sure my body is recovering right,” Kemp said.
The five-foot-seven Franklin native has kept a positive attitude despite spending the first month of the season with Fresno, where he was hitting .335 with 54 base knocks and 19 RBI in 38 games. The Astros have a crowded lineup that includes all-star caliber players like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and George Springer, so Kemp does not play every day.
“We’ve got a lot of good players out there, man,” Kemp said. “You’ve got to be mentally tough. I don’t want to look at other people’s paths because I shouldn’t worry about that. Your answers to the test will be different than somebody else’s.”
New t-shirts are a hit
He also recently started a “Hugs for Homers” campaign by selling T-shirts to raise money for the Astros Youth Academy, which provides urban youth with organized recreational activities. Kemp began a tradition of jumping into the arms of Fresno teammates Drew Ferguson and Garrett Stubbs when they hit home runs, and he has continued the ritual with Houston designated hitter Evan Gattis.
“When you’re in Triple-A, no one wants to be there, you want to be in the (majors),” Kemp said. “You’ve got to find a way to keep it light. Once I got called up, Gattis hit a home run and I jumped in his arms. The next day he hit another and we did it again – it kind of become our handshake.”
Kemp put out a feeler on Twitter to see if Astros fans were interested in “Hugs for Homers” shirts and nearly 2,500 people retweeted him. There are now both navy and orange versions of the shirt, which depicts Kemp jumping into Gattis’ arms, available online for $25.
“I was like, ‘I guess people want the shirts,’” Kemp said. “We’ve sold like 1,500 already – it’s just blowing up. I was looking at the website and it said the orange version (of the shirt) could take one-to-two weeks to deliver because they’re in such high demand.”
T-shirts sales aren’t the only thing that’s hot in Houston – the Astros have won their last six series and their 55 victories are the most in baseball as of June 30. Kemp said he believes the team is primed for another deep playoff run.
“We’re on the right track,” Kemp said. “We have a bunch of great teammates that want to be here and want to win. They don’t just want one World Series ring, they want two. It’s good to see that people on this team aren’t complacent.”
Baughman said he wouldn’t mind seeing Kemp traded to a team where he could be a full-time starter, but he also understands why Houston is hesitant to give up a player of Kemp’s makeup.
“My oldest kid will go, ‘Dad, he’s not in the lineup again’ and I’ll say “I know, it’s stupid,’” Baughman said. “That our bias toward Tony. It’s so tough playing on a team like (Houston), but as long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, he should be fine.”
As for Kemp, he’d certainly like to be playing every day. But until that happens, he said he’s going to keep contributing whenever and wherever the team needs him.
“Obviously, my goal is to be an everyday player on a big-league club,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to find that role when your team just won the World Series.
“But just to be associated with this level of baseball is something I’ll cherish forever. Hopefully I’ll continue to have a prosperous career while having fun and smiling out there.”