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.