For Kearns, It's Home and Away
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007; Page E01
VIERA, Fla., March 4 -- There are still remnants of Austin Kearns's old life in his new one. Each day, when he leaves the Washington Nationals' clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, he puts his blue Kentucky basketball hat backward on his head, a reminder of where he came from and where he still lives. But the stunned expression is gone. The handshakes and introductions were swapped for a constant stream of text messages with teammates. The uncertainty of last summer was exchanged for a three-year contract, for stability.
"The comfort factor," Kearns said, "is completely different."
This is Kearns's first spring training as a National, the first time he knows he will enter a season and be more than a four-hour drive from his home on the outskirts of Lexington, Ky. Coming up, the broad-shouldered right fielder was never out of range of his home base, whether it be Class A ball in Dayton, Ohio, the next step in Chattanooga or Class AAA down the road in Louisville. By the time he made it to Cincinnati as a major leaguer in 2002, his father, Dan, could drive up the road from Lexington and be at almost every game.
"You get so spoiled playing close to home," Kearns said. "You can go home whenever you want to. You're around the people you know. Your family can come visit you.
"But then you get further away, and you realize what most guys go through."
That was Kearns last summer, the hometown hero who suddenly became most guys, just another commodity who could be shipped out. Last July 13, Kearns's wife, Abby, drove him from Lexington, where he had spent the all-star break, back to Cincinnati. Dan Kearns was going to drive up that night.
"But before I got there, I got the call," Dan Kearns said Sunday. "He said, 'Don't bother coming.' "
Trades like the eight-player deal that sent Kearns and infielder Felipe Lopez to Washington happen every year. But this one rattled Kearns, the seventh pick of the 1998 draft who has yet to fully realize the potential so many saw in him. Ask Bob Boone, the Nationals' director of player development who managed Kearns in Cincinnati, what he expected Kearns to be by now, at 26, and the answer is blunt: "A super-duper star," Boone said.
Yet he isn't. And here's a small list of reasons: torn thumb ligament (2001); strained hamstring (2002); rotator cuff surgery (2003); broken left forearm and right thumb surgery (2004). It got to the point that Kearns, an affable guy, came to spring training in 2005 wary of discussing his health.
"It just started bugging the crap out of me, answering that question every spring," Kearns said. "I just told people, 'Look, I'm not talking about it. It's over with.' "
There was, Kearns said, nothing worse than the summer of 2003. He was coming off a 107-game debut as a rookie the year before in which he hit .315. The first two months of '03, "he was just crushing the ball," said Boone, the Reds' manager at the time.
On May 21, Kearns doubled in the seventh inning of a home game against the Atlanta Braves. Dan Kearns was in the stands, and his son moved up to third. Reliever Ray King, now a National, was on the mound for the Braves, and he uncorked a ball that got by Javy Lopez, the Braves' catcher.
"As old and slow as I am," Dan Kearns said, "I would have tried to score."
So Austin took off for the plate. But Lopez pounced on the ball, and King covered home. King, who is listed at 240 pounds, collided with Kearns as he tagged him out. "It was ugly," Dan Kearns said, "and it was awkward."
Austin Kearns returned to right for the top of the eighth. He finished with three RBI. The Reds won that night, and at game's end, Kearns was hitting .309, slugging .599. He had played in 45 games, had 44 RBI.
The next day, he couldn't raise his arm above his head. He played anyway. He underwent daily rehabilitation. His shoulder got no better. He stopped hitting. He kept playing.
"I'm stubborn," he said. "I've always kind of thought if you can be out there, you should go out there. That's one of my biggest pet peeves. I hate it when a guy gets nicked up or something and goes down like he was shot, and all the trainers and everybody comes running out, and then he stays in the game. I've just never been like that.
"But looking back, it probably wasn't the smart thing to do."
Over the next 37 games, Kearns hit .208, slugged .277. In July, he went on the disabled list. Doctors found damage in his right shoulder. He underwent the surgery.
That September, the Chicago Cubs came to Cincinnati fighting for a playoff spot, creating a buzz. One night, Kearns watched the first few innings from the dugout. But he couldn't stand it.
"I was going nuts," he said. He headed to the clubhouse. If he couldn't play, he wouldn't watch.
All that, he said, was the hardest. Harder than being sent to the minors in 2005. Harder, even, than the trade. Kearns met the Nationals in Pittsburgh for his first series with his new club. He promptly had one hit in the series, prompting then-manager Frank Robinson gave him a day off. At the end of a six-game road trip, Kearns was 4 for 22 as a National.
"It was just the surprise factor," Dan Kearns said. "Usually, rumors are flying around, and people hear things and expect things. He didn't have a clue."
Abby Kearns was pregnant with the couple's second son. He didn't know where they would live. He didn't know who he would get along with.
And then he arrived in Washington. The team was in last place, where it spent almost all of 2006. But the sale to the family of Theodore Lerner was complete. The new owners held a ceremonial "grand reopening" of RFK Stadium. Each game of the six-day homestand drew more than 29,000 people.
"I'm telling you, those fans made a difference for him," Dan Kearns said. "They talk about Cincinnati being a great baseball town, but they look for you to strike out so they can boo. Here they were, Washington, in last place, and they cheered everything."
Kearns finished out the year with the Nationals, hitting just .250 for his new club. But General Manager Jim Bowden, who drafted Kearns when he was with Cincinnati, still saw what Kearns could do, not what he had done. As Boone said, "The sky's still the limit."
So in January, Kearns signed his three-year deal, which guarantees him $17.5 million and, should the club pick up an option for a fourth season, would pay him $26.5 million.
"I just got convinced that the team was going in the right direction," he said.
On Sunday afternoon, after he went hitless in three at-bats of a Grapefruit League victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kearns stood in the Nationals' clubhouse, his locker squarely in the middle of the other pieces of the team's future, Lopez, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, catcher Brian Schneider and first baseman Nick Johnson. Zimmerman said goodbye as he ambled out, and Kearns pulled on that Kentucky basketball cap backward. He headed out himself, as comfortable as could be.
"I feel like what I'm supposed to do," Kearns said, "has just been postponed."