By Craig Flagg
Anyone whose immune system is running a bit low may want to avoid spending much time around Tony Kemp.
To be clear, Kemp isn’t ill, it is just that his high-energy, fun-loving personality can become infectious. And there is no telling what that might do to you.
This, however, is certain: Kemp, who played for the Vanderbilt Commodores from 2011 to 2013, is having a blast playing for the Houston Astros these days. And the Astros are loving the fire he brings to the team, whether it’s filling an outfield spot, pinch-running or sharing high-fives and hugs in the dugout.
“I feel good,” Kemp said last week as the Astros were in Anaheim, Calif., to begin a three-game set against the Angels. “It’s one of those things where you feel comfortable in your own skin and you can go out on the field and just play your game and not have to be worried about anything else.”
Kemp knows to trust the system — his system. It’s what has worked for him as he developed into a star at Centennial High School, lifted him to first-team college All-American and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year at Vandy and has helped him get playing time on what may be the best team in Major League Baseball.
“Just go out there and have fun,” he said. “That’s my main focus. Just playing like I’ve been playing in the backyard with my brother.”
Kemp, 26, got his first, brief call up to the majors in May of 2016. He returned to the big leagues for two months starting in August of 2016. He played a full season at Triple A in 2017 — batting .329 with nine triples and 10 home runs — before joining the Astros for the final month with rosters expanded. After getting called up this past May, he is now enjoying his longest run with the big league club.
“It’s a good time,” he said. “I just don’t want it to be, you know, caught up in like, you’re at work or your job. You get to play baseball for a living and get to play at the highest level. You should always have a smile on your face because of that reason.”
A natural second baseman, Kemp began his pro career as an infielder but has converted to playing the outfield, primarily left field. Though not a “regular” starter, he’s been getting a good bit of playing time. In going 2-for-5 in the Angels series, he upped his batting average to .301. What’s more, he leads the defending World Series champs with a .400 on-base percentage.
It’s numbers like those that very likely had him somewhat at ease as the Astros called up prized outfield prospect Kyle Tucker on July 7. To do so, Houston had to clear a roster spot. The team opted to send outfielder Jake Marisnick to Triple A.
“At the time, I knew that (Tucker) was heating up in Triple A and that he was going to be making his debut soon,” Kemp said. “I knew he was coming up and he was a left-hand bat (Kemp also bats from the left side) and it would be easy to send me down, but I think I put myself in a position to stay with this team.”
Astros manager A.J. Hinch agreed, telling Kemp they like what he brought to the team.
“Obviously, I was happy,” Kemp said. “I was thrilled that they want to keep me around, and I’ve just got to keep doing the things I’ve been doing.”
Mostly, that means being prepared — for almost anything.
“The Astros, they’re all about versatility. So you’ve got to be able to play multiple positions,” Kemp said. “You’ve just got to keep at it and work at more than one position. If you could give a guy a day off at second base or a guy a day off in left, center or right field, that’s four opportunities for you to insert yourself into the lineup, so versatility is huge.
“Each day you’ve got to make sure. I’m still taking ground balls in the infield, staying fresh, just in case (Jose) Altuve comes out of the game or somebody needs a breather. Or if I’m starting that day, you gotta make sure you’re good at that one position.
“But, you know, if I’m not playing that day, I like to pick up a baseball and just look at the baseball, and you have to remember how hard this game is. I like to just take 30 seconds out of my day and just look at the baseball and remind myself that it is a game of failure. You can do everything right and still fail, statistically. I just try to hit the ball hard. And if you hit the ball hard, you did your job.”
As Kemp has settled in with the team, he’s managed to make an impact even in games in which he doesn’t play.
His unabashed enthusiasm and love for the game have endeared him to Astros fans. They particularly get a kick out of Kemp any time Astros catcher Evan Gattis hits a home run. Before Gattis makes his way back to the dugout, Kemp greets him with a big hug, and with Kemp at 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds and Gattis at 6-4 and 270, it’s a sight to behold.
Kemp has managed to turn the image into a fundraising effort. After tweeting “Who wants a Hugs for Homers T-shirt?” and getting almost 3,000 re-tweets, he decided to see if he could partner the T-shirts with a charity to raise money for kids who can’t afford baseball equipment. So far, they raised more than $4,000 to benefit the Astros Youth Academy.
“I know what it’s like, especially growing up, how expensive baseball equipment can be,” Kemp said. “I know sometimes that’s why kids tend to go toward other sports because baseball equipment is expensive.”
While Kemp clearly has a big heart for little kids, he also has a kinship with the underdog.
“I had a post the other day, I just want to be an inspiration to kids that have been told that they’re undersized,” Kemp said. “I’ve been told that, ‘Hey, he’s good, but he’s too small.’ I’ve heard that in high school, going to Vandy, like, ‘Yeah, he won’t start his freshman year, he’s too small. It’s a bigger outfield. He can’t patrol that much.’ I have heard all that stuff.
“I just want to be a person they can look at and look up to and say, ‘Hey, I don’t have to be the biggest, tallest, strongest guy. I can be 5-6 like Tony Kemp or Jose Altuve and I can still make it to the big leagues.”
Kemp said that while he typically pays little attention to those doubters, there are certain specific times he soaks it all in.
“I’ll be doing pull-ups or I’ll be in the squat rack and I’ll remind myself of what people have said,” he said. “You know sometimes you shouldn’t listen to those opinions, but it’s good when you are working toward a goal. And my goal was to make it to the big leagues, and back in 2016, when I got my first call-up, it was, obviously, a dream come true, but I knew it was just the beginning. I just wanted to keep building off that and use the doubters and use the naysayers ... as motivation toward being a better player and I think it paid off.”
And he’s got a World Series ring to prove it.