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March 3, 2013

‘A GIFT FROM GOD': Columbus, Auburn product Ty Kelley survives birth defects, now chasing dream of closing for the Angels

Ty Kelley

By RICHARD HYATT — Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Beth Kelley had been pregnant six times in 10 years and only one baby survived, so it was natural that she wanted to tell Reggie this one was going to be a boy. Leaving the hospital, she drove to Green Island Country Club where her husband was playing golf.

She and 9-year-old Kaci walked right out on the green to give him the news.

Only Reggie and Beth know why they hadn’t given up. It wasn’t genetics. It wasn’t medical. They lost a day-old baby named Rhett on Christmas Eve one year. Others didn’t survive that long. And no one could tell them why.

“By then, it was mental more than physical,” Beth says.

Her seventh pregnancy was a daily struggle. Late in her sixth month, she was hospitalized, and when her fever spiked, doctors had to take the baby.

Reginald Tyler Kelley was born Aug. 18, 1988, at 10:16 a.m. He was premature, but he weighed 5 pounds, 12 ounces, with big hands and big feet.

“The whole neonatal care unit was in the delivery room with me so it was a crowd. They took him away fast and I never heard him cry,” his mother recalls.

Ty didn’t cry because he wasn’t breathing.

“He came out fighting,” Reggie says.


Still fighting

Ty Kelley is 24 and he’s still fighting. He’s in Arizona, wearing the uniform of the Los Angeles Angels, an undrafted free agent trying to pitch his way into the big leagues.

He started life as a preemie. Now he’s a strapping 6-foot-4, 220-pound relief pitcher that gets the ball when a game is on the line.

“You’re out there for a reason,” he says, summarizing his personal testimony.

“God, from Day 1, has had a plan for me. In baseball and in life you have to be mentally tough and mentally strong. I’ve had to believe in myself,” says Kelley, flashing a maturity that serves him well.

Reggie and Beth didn’t need a scout with a radar gun to know Ty was special. Beth knew that as soon as she held him in her arms and when doctors told her he could leave the high-risk nursery at The Medical Center. Despite his early problems, he went home in 10 days.

They could have coddled and protected him, but that wasn’t their style. His sister, Kaci, was a budding gymnast and when she wasn’t fussing over Ty, she was competing. He was her biggest fan, and his support continued when she turned to cheerleading.

Ty went to his first Auburn football game when he was 11 months old and was 2 years old when the family took him to Atlanta to see his cousin Wes in the Little League state championships. They snapped a picture of Ty picking up a ball on the mound in his miniature baseball uniform.

“I remember sitting in my dad’s lap at 3 or 4 years old, going through a pitcher’s mechanics,” Ty says.


‘A gift from God’

Baseball has shaped his life, and so have the circumstances of his birth.

Beth and Reggie have taken him back to The Medical Center for birthdays and the lighting of the tree at Christmas. At a reunion of high-risk babies in 2012, he was the oldest alumnus there.

People close to them can’t forget their painful quest for another baby and the hopes they’ve held for Ty.

“He has had to go through all of these things to be where he is,” Beth says.

When his son was a fifth-grader at Clubview Elementary School in 1999, Reggie wrote a letter to him that was included in a time capsule that wasn’t opened for 10 years. His moving words are a testimony to a cherished father-son relationship.

The letter talks about struggles at birth, emotions shared at his christening and other stops along the way, moments when Ty cheered for his sister, and most of all, a mother who worked so hard to bring him into the world.

“You are very special,” Reggie wrote, “a gift from God.”

Ty was 12 when he pitched Peach League to its first District 8 Little League title. That was the last time his dad was one of his coaches. Reggie had been a ballplayer so it would have been easy for him to make his dreams his son’s. But Beth says the game became Ty’s passion.

“I remember when it crossed over,” she says.

That was the day Ty decided to take the admissions test for Columbus High School. Despite past learning problems, he passed, meaning he would play under Coach Bobby Howard — Reggie’s teammate at Jordan High School.

Ty knew him as a family friend and a taskmaster, not a legend. The coach’s son, Will, had been a teammate of Ty’s since childhood.

“What Coach Howard did for me prepared me for everything that has happened,” Ty says.

He played on two state championship teams, was 9-0 as a junior and 10-6 as a senior. His defining moment came as a junior in the title game against Cartersville. He gave up a three-run homer in the first inning and in the second frame Howard pulled him with an 8-3 deficit.

“I was so mad I went to the car so I could be alone,” Beth recalls.

To everyone’s shock, Ty entered the game again and got the final 12 outs, allowing only two hits. He was the winning pitcher in a 14-9 victory.

When Auburn University offered him a scholarship, he jumped at the chance. But the next four years did not produce headline moments. The program was in turmoil. Coaches came and went and so did players.

After a promising redshirt sophomore season, Ty thought the next year would be his.

Instead he pitched only four innings the entire season and, when postseason play began, he was in civilian clothes.

He did not figure into a decision in two years as a Tiger. To work out the kinks and salve his disappointments, he went to Amsterdam, N.Y., to play in a summer league in 2010. He had pitched twice and recorded a victory in relief at Doubleday Field near the Baseball Hall of Fame when he got a call offering him a chance to sign with the Angels.

“God had a plan for me,” Ty says.


Big League dream

Ty Kelley isn’t in the majors but has faith he will be. Last season, as a closer in Class-A ball, he was 6-1 with a 1.66 earned run average with 61 strikeouts in 50 innings. He had 19 saves.

One baseball site calls Ty the top relief pitcher in the Angels organization. He reported to camp with the big club last month, and in a matter of days his dazzling changeup impressed the Angels’ general manager.

Ty looks at the opportunity as “a God thing.”

“Every day I try and prove someone wrong,” he says.

To his family, he has nothing to prove. They remember Dr. Louis Levy, his pediatrician, comforting them as he wheeled Ty to the high-risk nursery where he hooked him up to a respirator and stuck tubes in his tiny body. They’ve celebrated every step with him and will be there wherever baseball leads.

So will Levy.

“I’ll be there when you make it,” he told Ty.

“And I will leave you the tickets,” his former patient said.

Richard Hyatt, sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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