Relieved Kearns can relax a little
OF guaranteed playing time, but knows he must produce, stay healthy
SARASOTA, Fla. — Austin Kearns reported to camp this spring with a thinner waist-line and a wider smile.
For the first time since making the roster of the Cincinnati Reds, Kearns came to camp with his name embossed on right field. He doesn’t have to beat out Juan Encarnacion, he doesn’t have to beat out Wily Mo PeÃƒÂ±a and he doesn’t have to beat out Chef Boy-r-dee.
The slimmer, trimmer 25-year-old No. 1 draft pick in 1998 came to camp last year with a bulging belt and a battle on his hands to squeeze into the lineup.
When he started slow, much of it more attributable to injuries than poundage, former general manager Dan O’Brien exiled him to Louisville for a month on a Jenny Craig rehab.
It’s all different this year. First baseman Sean Casey was traded, left fielder Adam Dunn moved to first base, Wily Mo PeÃ±a moved to left field and Kearns owns right.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve come in knowing I’d be out there every day and I’m sure it is a relief for Wily Mo, too,” said Kearns. “We can relax. It’s good for both of us.
“Knowing people are behind you, knowing if you go into a little funk people are going to stick with you and you aren’t looking over your shoulder to see who is taking your place,” he added.
Manager Jerry Narron is a Kearns booster/supporter.
“I look for him to have a big year for us,” he said. That “us” part means a lot to Kearns because over the past year every sentence containing his name also seemed to contain the word trade. “He has shown when he is healthy he has been a big run-producer.
“He is a very good outfielder and very good baserunner,” Narron added. “He does not make mistakes. All the teams must feel that way about him, too, because whenever we talk trade his name always comes up.”
The last time Kearns was fully healthy was his rookie season when he hit .315 over 107 games in 2002.
“This is a big year for him,” Narron said. “He needs to establish himself. He has to stay healthy and produce. I believe he realizes that by the way he came to camp in such good shape.”
Like many teammates, Kearns was one step this side of shocked when the Reds traded Casey.
“I was surprised when he was the guy because the talk always was that it was going to be me or Wily Mo traded,” he said. “That’s all I ever heard. It is tough losing a guy like Casey. You don’t find too many Sean Caseys running around.
“But it gives me and Wily Mo an opportunity, so I guess that’s good for us,” he said.
About Narron’s big-year assessment, Kearns said, “I hope he is right. I like Jerry’s whole approach, the old-school thing. I always thought that’s how I play the game. He likes baseball players. It might get old hearing all the time about playing the game right, but you have to do that, have a bunch of guys do that to have a successful team.”
Kearns missed several games last year — and played several games — with a thumb so out of whack it had a hole in it. He taped it and padded it and went to the plate and at least once a game threw his bat into the stands because he lost his grip.
His thumb this year?
“It’s attached,” Kearns said with a grin. “That’s all I can ask.”