By Rob Rains
It’s been nearly six years since 17-year-old Carson Kelly sat at the kitchen table of his family’s home in Portland, Ore., and made a promise to his parents.
Kelly had been selected by the Cardinals in the second round, the 86th overall pick, in the 2012 amateur draft and he told Mike and Traci Kelly that despite turning down a scholarship to Oregon to sign with the Cardinals, he would still complete his college degree.
When he hits the send button on his computer on Tuesday after taking his last on-line final, for his class in agricultural and food management, that promise will be fulfilled.
“I go back to the day he was drafted and having the discussion about whether he wanted to honor his commitment to Oregon or head to pro ball as a 17-year-old,” Mike Kelly said Monday by telephone. “I said if you decide to go with the Cardinals my hope is that you would take on school. I said I know it’s going to be a hard road and is going to take you a little longer but hopefully you will make it to the big leagues and get your degree around the same time.
“Actually he got to the big leagues faster (in 2016) than he got the degree but he promised us that day, and promised himself more importantly that day, that he would stick with it. It hasn’t been easy but he made that commitment just like when he sets any goal and he accomplished it.
“We’re really, really proud of him and what he’s done over six years.”
Kelly’s degree is in economics, and is coming from Oregon State, not Oregon, because that school had a better online program.
Kelly took all of his classes online and he only half-kiddingly jokes that he went to the college campus in Corvalis only once for something other than a sporting event over the last six years – to buy books. The rest of the time he also bought all of his books online.
“It was something I really wanted to do, it wasn’t anything out of the blue,” Kelly said. “I wanted to continue my education. … I know looking back in a few years I will be glad I got it done.”
Most of the costs for Kelly’s education were paid by the Cardinals as part of his original contract that he signed after the draft.
As Kelly headed off to Johnson City, Tenn., to begin his pro career that summer, his dad admits he had doubts about whether his son’s promise would be fulfilled as he settled into the baseball lifestyle, especially at such a young age.
“I certainly had doubts,” he said, “even knowing him and how determined he has always been. We sent him off to Johnson City when he was 17. It was a whole new world. I remember we went down there the opening week and I asked him how the first night was and he said the guys went to a restaurant and got him a kid’s menu. I thought ‘oh boy.’”
Kelly began his classes later that year, not really focusing on how difficult and time-consuming it actually would be getting his degree.
“At that point I was going to get some credits in,” Kelly said. “Now all the work I have done over the years has added up. Usually I took the summer off, but last summer I did some classes because I knew I was so close I just kept going.
“It’s gotten easier; some of the classes were more difficult. When I first started it was mostly general courses, and they pound those subjects into you. As I got those done I could focus more on the stuff I enjoy.”
There were many nights when Kelly would stay in the clubhouse after games, after his teammates had left, and pull out his books and laptop and attack his assignments from a table in the middle of the room – preferring that setting to being in a hotel room.
He also stopped in at local coffee shops when he needed a good internet connection.
“We bought him a hot spot for the bus rides,” his dad said. “A lot of those homework assignments were due digitally by midnight on Sunday nights. I know he submitted papers on the hot spot probably at a truck stop somewhere.”
Kelly has had help with his classwork over the years, getting encouragement from manager Mike Matheny and his coaches, and some teammates who earned their degrees in the traditional on-campus route, including Stanford graduate Stephen Piscotty and Paul DeJong, who offered tutoring assistance or help with papers along the way.
One who did not offer much help, other than moral encouragement, was Luke Voit, who has been one of Kelly’s roommates for several years in the minors and in spring training, including this year. Voit went to Missouri State, taking the traditional path to his college education as an on-campus student.
“I will be home playing video games or watching TV and he will be crushing it,” Voit said of Kelly’s homework assignments. “He gets the caffeine going and cranks it. I’m envious. I couldn’t do it.
“For him to do it with all of the stress he has to go through day in and day out, then go home and have to do all that too … he’s got a lot of self-discipline.”
Because he knew how close he was getting to completing his degree, Kelly stepped up his classwork this spring, taking the five classes, all electives, that he needed to finish. His hardest class was “Food in Non-Western Culture,” in which he received a C plus. Kelly had A’s and B’s in the other four courses.
Mike Kelly said his oldest son also was inspired to finish up the classes and receive his degree because his younger brother, Parker, is scheduled to graduate with a business degree later this year from Oregon.
“He definitely wanted to graduate before his brother,” Mike Kelly said. “He edged him by six months.”
This spring was the first time Jack Flaherty has roomed with Kelly and Voit. Like Kelly, Flaherty turned down a college scholarship (to North Carolina) to sign with the Cardinals out of high school but he has yet to start taking college courses.
Watching Kelly do it, however, has served as an inspiration for Flaherty.
“He goes about his schoolwork like he goes about all his business,” Flaherty said. “Whatever he is doing is the most important thing at that moment. You see when he comes here (to the ballpark) it’s baseball. He takes pride in what he does, in baseball and when it comes to his schoolwork.
“I’ve thought about it (college) but he dove right in and went after it. It’s paid off for him. It’s really special; you don’t hear about that from anybody. For him to be in that position is special. You see the amount of time and work that he puts into it, he really takes it seriously. It’s cool to see.”
Kelly said even when he was in high school, he thought he played better when he also was concentrating on school and that for the most part he enjoyed taking classes while he was advancing through the Cardinals’ farm system.
“I think of it almost like a distraction from baseball,” Kelly said. “No matter what I did on the field I knew I had to go home and do homework.”
That was true again this week, when Kelly learned on Sunday he had been optioned to Triple A Memphis.
“As we have all learned, this is a tough game,” Mike Kelly said.
“He enjoyed it (school) and stuck with it, and made that commitment,” Kelly’s father added. “I remember telling him it’s almost harder to graduate college as a high school draftee than it is to make the major leagues. I think there’s only like four or five percent of college graduates at the MLB level and it must be zero of people who have done it while they are in the minor leagues.
“He was really determined. He’s very analytical in nature and economics was a good opportunity for him. Like he has embraced other challenges, like moving to catcher, this was another opportunity where we couldn’t be prouder of what he has accomplished. I think it’s pioneering and I hope by telling the story that other kids will take their schooling seriously as well.
“It’s pretty fascinating how it’s all worked out. … Now he’s even talking about maybe going for his Masters.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains