by Dan Cleary
FORT MYERS, FL - Ryan Kalish was locked in. The hard-nosed leadoff hitter and center fielder for the Lowell Spinners was enjoying the type of week and season he could only dream about growing up near the Jersey Shore.
On a beautiful, sunny, July New England summer afternoon, the former Red Bank Catholic (N.J.) star stepped into the batter’s box ready to continue his assault on New York-Penn League pitching as he squared off against Brett Cecil of the Auburn Doubledays to kick off a double-dip at LeLacheur Park in Lowell, Mass.
And then it happened.
“I went from an up to a down in just one swing,” said Kalish, 19, the Red Sox’s ninth-round selection in the 2006 First Year Player Draft out of RBC. “As soon as it happened, I knew it wasn’t good. You just have to deal with it and move on.”
What wasn’t good for Kalish, the Spinners and the Boston organization was the fractured hamate bone in Kalish’s right hand. The injury is usually suffered when a batter grips the knob of the bat when swinging.
The injury, which occurred on July 16, put the Shrewsbury, N.J. resident on the shelf for the rest of the season for the Spinners, the Red Sox’s Class A short-season affiliate in the NY-P. Kalish is currently rehabbing and getting ready for next season at the Red Sox’s minor league complex in Fort Myers, Fla. The sturdy, 6-foot-1, 205 pound lefty is hoping to start swinging the bat again by late October, early November, he said.
“I’m doing all right. I’m doing a lot of work down here and I am getting healthy,” said Kalish, who is ranked Boston’s 17th best prospect by Baseball America and signed with the club last July for close to $700,000, turning down the chance to play at the University of Virginia.
“It is coming along better than I thought it would,” he added. “It was a bummer, but I was happy that I was doing so well before it happened. I was hitting well and I also did a good job in extended spring training. I got about 200 at-bats there, so I was able to get almost 300 at-bats in before I got hurt. So I’m ready to go.”
Prior to his injury, Kalish was tearing up the NY-P and was named the loop’s Player of the Week for July 9-15. During that span, he was a sizzling 12-for-15 with three doubles and two homers. For the season, in 23 games, he hit .368 (32-for-87) with four doubles, three dingers and 13 RBI. He was also leading the league in stolen bases with 18 and runs scored with 27. He also had a stellar on-base percentage of .471. Despite the injury, he was named to the NY-P All-Star team.
The Spinners were 15-9 at the time, but after losing Kalish, they finished the season 40-36 and missed the playoffs. A fact not lost on Spinners manager and former Major Leaguer, Gary DiSarcina.
“Once he got hurt, our team lost its identity and struggled to find it the rest of the year,” said the Lowell skipper, who played for the then-Anaheim Angels for 12 seasons before retiring after the 2000 season.
“Ryan was a pleasure to be around and a manager’s dream. He worked hard during batting practice and played hard during the game. He is the epitome of a ‘baseball player.’ He reminds me a lot of (former Angles teammate and current White Sox) Darin Erstad and the way Erstad approaches the game.”
DiSarcina continued, “Ryan has a lot to learn, but he is willing to ask questions and he is very humble and a talented kid. As long as he stays healthy and remains focused, he will soon be playing in the big leagues.”
Pretty high praise from a man who knows. And the Erstad comparison is dead on, considering both have a football background. Erstad was the punter on the University of Nebraska’s National Championship team in 1994. Erstad is the only player to win a Gold Glove in center field and at first base, two positions Kalish played in high school.
Although, some recruiting publications have compared Kalish to Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, who is having a fine season for the woeful Birds this year.
While at Red Bank Catholic, Kalish led the football team to an 8-2 mark his senior year and a share of the division title for Coach Frank Edgerly. Kalish said he used the lessons he learned from football and his coach to forge his approach to playing baseball and for handling his injury.
“Mentally, you have to persevere and playing football is how I relate to handling adversity,” said Kalish. “I used the mental toughness I gained in football and the life lessons from Coach Edgerly to help me deal with things. I also play baseball like a football player. When I’m running the bases, I’m looking to see if the catcher has the ball and I’m ready to bowl him over.”
It seems ironic that Kalish would suffer a season-ending injury by doing something as simple as swinging a bat. One would think he would have been injured running into a wall in the outfield chasing down a ball or in a collision at home plate.
Kalish now uses that mental toughness during his rehab. He said he puts in 4 ½ to 5 hours a day at the Red Sox complex under the watchful eye of trainer Jim Young. Kalish said he does some weight training and cardiovascular work while waiting for the hand to heal.
“Being in rehab, you have to stay in shape,” said Kalish, who also suffered a shoulder injury his senior year in high school, which limited him to DH’ing and did not allow him to pitch. “We have a serious training regimen. You don’t sit around all day like a bum. You get in shape and that helps you heal faster.”
One person keeping tabs on Kalish’s progress is Mike Hazen, the Director of Player Development for the Red Sox.
“We are extremely pleased with his progress,” said Hazen. “He is very passionate about the game and his career. He is a tremendous athlete with power, speed and technique. We are waiting to see him get healthy for next season and see him improve.”
During his short professional career, Kalish has played well everywhere he has been assigned. He helped the Red Sox affiliate win the Gulf Coast League (Fla.) crown after he joined the club in the summer of 2006 and he also played in the Fenway Futures Game for the Spinners later that season at Fenway Park in Boston, which was a super experience, Kalish said.
“That was unreal. I still can’t believe it happened,” said Kalish, who was a Red Sox fan growing up. “Once you step on that field it is a special feeling.”
Due to the fact he signed so late in the season last year, the Sox kept him in extended spring training this year and sent him back to Lowell to start the season. That may happen again due to his injury, but Kalish said he has eyes set on playing for Greenville, Boston’s long-season Class A club in the South Atlantic League.
“I want to establish myself as one of the hardest workers there (spring training). If you do that, people start to notice. It is not about just showing up. You have to put in the work,” Kalish said. “I also want to establish myself as a winner and a clutch player. I think I was doing that before I got hurt. That is what makes it so disappointing.”
Kalish developed his winning attitude at RBC, where he excelled in baseball and football. The Caseys went 19-10 his senior season in baseball. He hit .422 with 37 stolen bases and 31 runs scored for Coach Tony Martinez, a former minor leaguer, and “awesome guy”, who played a large role in Kalish’s development as a baseball player, Kalish said.
“I live and breathe sports and I think you need diversity to keep your sanity,” said Kalish of playing multiple sports in high school. “It also makes you mentally tough and keeps you in game-shape year round.”
Kalish’s talent, toughness and grades earned him a chance to continue his career at the University of Virginia. But when he was drafted on the day he graduated high school, he let everyone know he was selected by the Sox in a very special way.
“I got the call that day, so when I went up to get my diploma and they called my name, I put on a Red Sox hat and everyone went nuts and started cheering,” he fondly recalled. “It was a big moment for me. We have a small school, so everyone knew what was going on. We’re like a family, so it was an awesome feeling.”
Kalish signed with the club two months later, for much more money than is expected for a ninth-round selection. Boston had to go through the Major League Commissioner’s office to get approval.
“Virginia is a great school and it was a hard decision,” Kalish said. “But I personally feel you need to go for the money and plan for your future. I was fortunate to get a huge signing bonus. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Kalish has come a long way from taking bating practice from his father, Steve, who along with his mother, Eileen, have been great supporters of his career.
“They have always been there. My dad used to throw me BP all the time because I played football, so I never played in those fancy summer leagues. I did my work with him.”
Now, Kalish is hoping to pass along his knowledge to his young brother, Jake, a sophomore pitcher at Red Bank Regional. “He has real good arm strength and for a sophomore, he is hitting 83, 84 mph.”
If the younger Kalish is a good study like his older brother, then he might be switching caps on his graduation day continuing a special family tradition.
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