When someone who does not live in the Midwest is asked to describe it you get the typical answers. They describe the cornfields, the flat land, more cornfields, the terrible winters, even more cornfields, and if they are an athlete, the time spent playing outside sports in a confined inside space.
Baseball players do not usually come out of the Midwest. They are not meant to compete with the studs who play year round in California, Texas, and Florida.
I would recommend that you not say that to Jarred Kelenic.
Jarred sees it as an opportunity. And if you come at Jarred with a challenge, he smiles and makes it his goal to beat your challenge and then set a harder challenge for himself.
An opportunity to prove that baseball players come in all shapes and sizes and from all parts of the United States. Jarred hails from Waukehsa, Wisconsin and plays for the Rawlings Hitters, might be the most dominant high school baseball player in the country.
When you look at him you think perhaps the kid is playing the wrong sport. He stands 5’11” and weighs about 185 and is built like a linebacker who spends his entire day running downhill looking for a quarterback to crush. He is compact, strong, and well put together for a kid his age and his strength shows when he makes contact with a baseball.
“He hits the ball hard.” Says Matt Blood, director of USA Baseball's 18U National Team.
“Even from the first day when he started making contact, everything he hit was hard, and loud. The ball jumps off his bat every time he makes contact.”
So where does the story start? Jarred is not Robert Redford playing catch with his dad in the wheat field with the ball just firing out of his hand from a young age. Jarred is a kid who played every sport as a young boy and began to fall in love with baseball more and more as his teen years approach. Once he realized where his potential could go to he became the kid who refused to be anything better than great.
“Nobody works as hard as I do. That may be arrogant to say, but I don’t know many seventeen year old kids getting up at 4:45 to get their first workout of the day in.”
To be fair, he may be right. Most high school kids struggle to get up for school at 7:30 or 8 o’clock. By the time they are rolling out of bed Jarred has finished his workout, gotten in a round of batting practice, and is out the door. And that is just his morning.
“Jarred is intense and focused on his craft. He has obviously worked very hard to get to where he is now,” Says Matt Blood.
Jarred is driven by the support he has around him. “So many people have invested so much time in me that I owe it to them to put in my absolute best effort.”
It is rare to find a young man who is so talented, so driven, but so humble at the same time to realize the importance of the people around him who make a difference. Jarred often comments on the impact of coaches who make such a big difference. He says that being on a team with coaches and players who work with a positive attitude can have a huge impact.
“It always sounds so cliché, but you have to go out there and have fun too. If you forget that you are playing a game, or you have a coach who takes the fun out of it, then you lose something in the process. One day it might be a job, but until that time you have to appreciate the fact that you are on a ballfield as often as possible. Some kids never get these opportunities, you have to enjoy that time.”
“I spend so much time on the baseball field that I look forward to the relationships I get to create with those guys who love the game as much as I do.”
Matt Blood echoes his statement and comments on Jarred as a teammate; “his teammates recognize his competitive fire and are a good support structure for Jarred. He enjoys being around them and they enjoy having him around.”
It is that drive that keeps Jarred going on a daily basis; “I don’t have off days” he says. He continually wants to get better on the field and sees his improvements there as a chance to grow off the field as well.
“It is just as important to get better off the field too. The two environments build off of one another, if you can get better at both then good things will come in the future.”
You know what, he just might be right…again.
That mentality and drive might be the reason why a perennial college baseball powerhouse like Louisville came calling early. It might also be the reason why Jarred committed in 8th grade and has not waivered since.
“I’m Louisville all the way,” Jarred says. “I can’t wait to get down there and take advantage of every opportunity that will be presented. I want to make the most of my time and just continue to get better.”
When you ask Matt Blood, a former scout for the St. Louis Cardinals for eight years, how he will do there he comments that the sky is the limit. “Jarred is gifted with five tools, giving him the ability to impact all facets of the game. He’s an above average defender who can play all three outfield positions. He’s a plus runner with a plus arm and a strong bat and an advanced approach at the plate. He can even help on the mound for an inning if needed.”
When you probe Blood further you find out that the coach likes one particular quality over all the others.
“Jarred is very eager to learn. He is constantly looking for feedback from his coaches so he can work on improving both on and off the field. I think he made great strides in both those areas while with the 18U National Team this year and that’s a credit to him being coachable.”
It is rare in this world to see kids who want to be the best, but realize what it takes to become the best. Ego can get in the way very easily and can derail even the most promising talent. When the ego is moved out of the way the opportunities become limitless.
“Nobody works as hard as I do. That may be arrogant to say, but I don’t know many seventeen year old kids getting up at 4:45 AM to get their first workout of the day in.”
No, Jarred Kelenic is not Redford in the wheat field playing catch at 95 without ever having to work. He resembles better Rocky, training away in a barn with nothing but a fire to heat the place and makeshift weights to hone his skill and sculpt his body. He will climb the mountain of snow in the Russian wilderness to make sure that he is always prepared for the battle with Drago. Because that is the only way Jarred Kelenic knows how to approach the day.
“I’ve been playing against kids who were 17 or 18 years old since I was 13. None of those guys wanted to give up their spot to me and none of them wanted me to get the best of them. It was great motivation to work harder and harder.”
That drive and work ethic is the reason why he was able to make the twenty man roster for the 18U National Team recently. It might also be the reason why he hit .407 at the COPABE Pan American "AAA" Championships for the gold medal winning USA squad while taking home MVP honors for the entire tournament.
“It was nice to see Jarred rebound so well in the tournament itself. He didn’t have the best tryout for the team. You could see that he was pressing, trying to do too much, trying to be perfect. He just needed to play baseball,” said Blood.
And play baseball he did. His stats for the tournament were outstanding and when you look at a team that goes 7-1 in the tournament and takes home the gold with the tournament MVP you see the impact that Kelenic can have. This too, while being surrounded by the best high school talent in the country. It takes a great deal of outstanding baseball to make yourself stand out amongst the standouts.
And that is what makes the Kelenic story one that is exciting to watch. People who are not around the game do not think baseball in the Midwest. Kids there do not get those year round opportunities to fine tune their abilities on the field. They are forced to work inside, in cages, domes, gyms, fieldhouses, or maybe even a barn with nothing but a fire burning within themselves to heat the place on a cold winter.
Ask Matt Blood if there is a weakness, a chink in the armor, a flaw to be exposed and only one thing comes to mind.
“Early on, in the trials process, Jarred was trying to be a perfectionist, which is not possible in baseball. Failure is a part of the game and learning to deal with failure is imperative. As he began to learn this, he stopped pressing, and his talent began to show. Jarred really improved and came into his own mentally while with Team USA. In doing so, he became one of our most consistent producers.”
That is the scary part. Jarred Kelenic does not do failure, he does not accept it, and the word probably does not exist in his vocabulary.
“Every opportunity is an opportunity to get better,” says Jarred.
What happens when you have a kid who has a tremendous work ethic, a drive to be the best, a passion for the game unmatched, who takes coaching well, and wants to have fun playing baseball?
You sit back and enjoy the ride. You watch a kid who literally will run up a mountain in the snow if it will make him a better baseball player. You watch a kid who will train year round despite the cold and snow. You watch a kid who does not care what people think because he comes from the Midwest. You watch a kid who loves the game and plays it at 100 miles per hour no matter what the situation is.
You sit back and you enjoy and you hope your kid is not in the opposing dugout that next day. Because at some point Jarred Kelenic is going to impact the game and losing is not an option.