Kinney savoring every moment of his baseball life
Right-handed reliever battled through injury after World Series in 2006
SEATTLE -- Imagine you have worked for years to get your dream job. You're there and you succeed, and everyone applauds your efforts.
Now imagine that this job is as a Major League Baseball player, something millions of young boys dream about from daybreak to sundown, and then some more in their dreams. You are on top of the world.
Then it all comes crashing down.
That's what reliever Josh Kinney went through six years ago. He was a World Series champion with the Cardinals, pitching 6 1/3 scoreless innings in the 2006 playoffs. He won Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the Mets, had three holds and pitched in Cards wins in six of his seven appearances.
It was the first big league season for a right-handed reliever who went undrafted and signed with an independent ballclub in 2001. Kinney worked his way through St. Louis' Minor League system and finally debuted with the team in 2006. Then he won the ring, and he thought that's what being in the Majors was about.
"Shoot, to get up and see that environment. Know what it's like trying to make every pitch count. Every pitch. The fans are hanging on every pitch," Kinney said. "That's another thing that's pretty neat, [that] sticks out. You go 1-0, 2-0 on the road, and the whole stadium's standing up hoping you go ball three, ball four. Whereas when you're at home, you get strike one, strike two, and the whole place is standing up hoping you strike the guy out. Hanging on every pitch like that, knowing what each game really means and playing for nothing but a win in the playoffs."
Then came Spring Training 2007. Kinney felt he had established himself as a big league reliever. He thought he'd be a part of another playoff run. But right from the get-go, Kinney's arm didn't feel right. Then, with one throw, something felt seriously wrong.
"It was downhill from there for me," Kinney said.
Kinney underwent Tommy John surgery that spring to fix a torn ligament in his elbow. He was rehabbing that injury when he broke a bone in the elbow, and a screw had to be inserted.
"The Tommy John thing, for me, was, 'I'll come back from this,'" Kinney said. "But when I broke that bone, I had to have a screw put in my elbow. I didn't know if I'd be back again. The rehab for that was terrible. I couldn't throw. When I say 'couldn't throw,' I literally couldn't throw for a long time. It was tough.
"I really thought it was done. The doctors couldn't tell me anything. I had to go see some specialist."
Even after the elbow healed and Kinney could throw a baseball again, things didn't go smoothly. When he made a throwing motion, his bones would hit together, causing terrible discomfort.
Kinney eventually returned to the Majors, making seven appearances in 2008 and 17 in '09, his first full season back. But it still wasn't easy -- in his words, a "battle just to stay on the field."
But Kinney battled, because he was spurred by the memory of taking the mound in the playoffs. He wanted to get back. He needed to get back.
"It took that memory, and call it what you want -- my faith, luck, work or whatever -- to get back out there and play," Kinney said. "That's what I wanted to do more than anything. I just got to the point where I was like, 'I don't care what I have to do or how long it takes, I'm going to do it again.' It eventually worked out."
Kinney hasn't returned to the playoffs, but he has returned to the big leagues. He played in 13 games for the White Sox in 2011, signed with the Mariners during the offseason and made his organizational debut on July 3. On Monday, Kinney earned his first Major League save with a 43-pitch, 2 1/3-inning effort.
So for the moment, Kinney is just enjoying where the ride has taken him. For a small-town homebody from rural Pennsylvania, as he describes himself, it's a win in itself that he still gets to experience the professional baseball life. That means traveling to places Kinney never imagined he'd visit.
"Growing up where I did, in northern Pennsylvania, very rural, we always pictured New York City as this just terrible place where if you go there, you're going to mugged, you're going to get robbed, good chance you're going to get a knife pulled on you," he said with a laugh. "You just grew up with this mind-set of New York being this place you should never go.
"I'd never been there until I played against the Mets. It was totally awesome. Getting in, seeing how big a city really is. Getting to be right downtown, eating all the pizza, and different places. That was probably one of the coolest things my baseball memory will ever have for me. [I] try to go everywhere, and everywhere we go, I just get a little taste of the environment. I enjoy that."
The small-town kid is still a part of the 33-year-old, who resides on a farm in Springfield, Mo., during the offseason with his wife and son. When Kinney is not playing baseball, he's hunting or fishing.
"I just love the outdoors," he said minutes after putting down one of the many hunting magazines that litter his locker. "I'm always either in a tree stand or on a tractor, fixing something or building something or taking something apart."
That's just who Kinney is -- someone who does what he loves with a full heart. And he still loves to play baseball. Kinney has been to the pinnacle, and he's been to the farthest reaches of the bottom. His worst nightmare came true, and he's worked back from it.
Now Kinney is sitting back and enjoying the ride.
"I think, all together now, this is my 12th or 13th year playing," he said, "and I'm truly grateful to have a uniform on and be able to go out and go after it."
Josh Liebeskind is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.