Monday, March 28, 2011

Interview, Hugh Kemp: Lessons Learned

Hugh Kemp pitching for the AAA Nashville Sounds. Kemp pitched in Nashville three seasons in the Reds organization, from 1987 to 1989 without getting a call up to Cincinnati. (Photo Provided)

On the mound for DeKalb College, Hugh Kemp knew a coaching visit to the hill was more than enough to draw ragging from the opposing dugout.

That's because the coach coming to the mound was his father, Bill Kemp. The taunts came as Kemp's supposed plea to his dad to leave him in the game.

"It really just made me mad," Kemp recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently, referring to the taunts. "Then he'd make me madder because he would come out there and get after me, kind of like how you might grab your son by the arm when he'd done something wrong."

Kemp credits his father's help with making him into the pitcher he became. Kemp went on to pitch for the University of Georgia and play eight seasons in the minors with the Reds and the Pirates. He never made the majors, but stayed one step away from the ultimate goal for five seasons.

It was a fate, staying at AAA, that Kemp would later attribute to lack of consistency. But, while he didn't make the majors, he did make the 40-man roster once. It was an event he recalled learning about like everyone else: through the newspaper.

When his career finally ended, Kemp, a religious man, credited God with helping him get as far as he did - and ending it when it ended. Away from baseball, Kemp and his wife helped tend to her ailing father and start his post-playing career.

Kemp spoke to The Greatest 21 Days by phone from his Charlotte-area home. He's spent much of the last two decades there with his wife Carol and their family that grew to include three children.

And it's a sports loving family. His daughter Alexandria, now 22, played softball through high school. Daughter Amy, 18, ran track. Kemp recalled his son Ross, now an eighth grader, banging on the back door with a bat as an 18-month-old, wanting to go out and play.

It was also with his son Ross that Kemp recalled going to Cooperstown for the first time last year, with Ross' youth team. They got tour the Hall of Fame itself. Their three-hour trip through the museum could have easily been double that, he recalled.

Hugh Kemp's father, Bill Kemp, center, takes part in the Georgia Perimeter Alumni Day. Bill Kemp coached baseball and his son at DeKalb College, which later became Georgia Perimeter. Photo courtesy of Georgia Perimeter's Alumni Day Gallery.

But for Kemp, it was his own father, now 80, who taught him the fundamentals of the game, the fundamentals that he is now teaching to his own son.

"One thing my dad taught me more than anything was how to be a winner, how to be tough and never to give in, which is important," Kemp said. "You might have talent, but if you don't have heart, desire and a will to never quit or give in, your talent will probably take you only so far."

"I probably wouldn't have done near things I was able to do," Kemp said later, "if it hadn't been for the lessons he taught me."

Kemp's heart and desire took him on to the University of Georgia, where he struck out 11 Florida Gators in an April 1983 game and earned a selection by the Reds in the 13th round of that June's draft.

He would go on to have an even more impressive strike-out game later that year, one where he struck out 20 for the legendary Billings Mustangs.

Hugh Kemp in the Nashville bullpen. Kemp played for Nashville from 1987 to 1989. (Photo Provided)

Taken by the Reds in the 13th round, Kemp was sent to short-season Billings, in Montana.

Coming from college, he'd already been away from home. He'd even spent a summer playing in Alaska. So the transition from college to the pros was a smooth one.

On the field that smooth transition showed. He recalled that 20 strikeout game, a number that was one off the league record.

It was a feat even Kemp was surprised he'd reached.

"I think the strike zone expanded pretty well that night," Kemp said with a laugh.

He'd never struck out that many in a game in his life. The most he recalled setting down was 17 at DeKalb College. But, here he was, just short of the Pioneer League record.

"I wasn't really a strike out pitcher," Kemp said. "I just happened to have good stuff that night and I could throw anything at any time, and kept them guessing."

He went 9-3 that year, with an ERA of 2.21. He was also credited with a total of 138 strikeouts in 110 innings. And, with a team that included the likes of Rob Dibble, Jeff Montgomery and Kurt Stillwell, along with Kemp, the Mustangs won the 1983 Pioneer League title.

For 1984, Kemp moved to single-A Cedar Rapids. He also kept up his Billings pace. He went 11-9, with a 2.79 ERA. He also struck out another 143 in 164 innings.

Kemp made the next step for 1985, to the Florida State League. By the time the year was out, Kemp would make two more steps up - just one more step and he'd be in the majors.

Along with those two jumps, Kemp got some advice from a Hall of Fame pitcher, Sandy Koufax. Just after being told he'd been promoted to AA Vermont, Kemp's Tampa team was playing the Dodgers at Vero Beach. A teammate and former Dodger farmhand saw Koufax and introduced the two.

Kemp recalled the Hall of Famer telling him to simply work hard and not run his mouth as he moved up. And Kemp tried to do what he was told.

Starting 1985 at single-A Tampa, Kemp jumped to AA Vermont, then, by the end, he was at AAA Denver.

His first game at Denver was an away game, he recalled, at Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium. It was a stadium steeped in history, something Kemp appreciated. The Natural was filmed there, Kemp noted. O.J. Simpson also ran for 2,000 yards in that stadium.
He went five innings that day. "I was nervous from the first pitch, until they took me out," Kemp recalled.

Kemp started seven games for Denver that year, going 2-3 with an ERA of 3.12.

He also did well enough that year to get promoted to the Reds' 40-man winter roster in November.

It was news that would be welcome by any player. And, for Kemp, it was welcome - after he learned of it from the newspaper. Looking at the sports section one day, there he was in the transactions list.

"I hadn't even been called by the Reds at that point and told anything, which was OK, I didn't care," Kemp said. "I was pretty excited."

Kemp was student teaching that off season, he recalled his teacher making a huge deal out if it. The talk, though, made Kemp uncomfortable. He wasn't one to talk about his accomplishments. Even after he met his wife, he recalled, she didn't know he was a baseball player until maybe three weeks in. They met as he finished up at Georgia.

Still, it was good news.

"I was very humbled by it," Kemp said. "I was excited and I knew I had to work that much harder to have that chance."

And he did. He ran, he threw, all the things he needed to do, coming into camp in good shape, he said.

But he never made that final jump to the majors. Looking back, Kemp believes what held him back was his consistency, or lack there of.


Kemp rapidly made it to AAA, making it there in 1985. But that quick ascent didn't continue.

Over the next five seasons, he remained in AAA, without a call up. And Kemp believes he knows why.

"It boils down to consistency," Kemp said. "I had some real good years, but I had some years that weren't too good either. Talent wise, maybe I had enough. But, when you look at it, it's all about consistency in any sport, but really in life. I guess i wasn't consistent enough.

"But, hey, that's the way it goes."

Kemp also played in the Reds system, a team that had some good pitchers in the majors. Kemp realizes that, had he been with another team, like his hometown Braves, he might have gotten that chance.

"It's all about timing, it's all about being in the right place at the right time," Kemp said, "but, most of all, it's all about consistency."

But, while Kemp didn't get to go to the majors, he did get to go to a lot of other places. One winter, he went to Venezuela and played there. He also played in the Venezuelan league All-Star Game, picking up the win.

Kemp went to South America after a 1987 season where he went 6-10 with a 4.64 ERA. He hadn't been consistent enough. Coming back, Kemp returned to AAA and pitched in another All-Star game, the AAA All-Star Game.

It was during that time that Kemp's manager told him that Kemp had been recommended for promotion to the majors, twice, Kemp recalled. But the Reds didn't go along with that recommendation.

Kemp, though, also quickly added that the players who went up instead were deserving of the promotions.

"I understand it," Kemp said. "They still wanted me to prove that I could still be consistent. It just didn't work out.

"God had his plans for my life," Kemp added. "You don't know it at the time. I wanted it to be baseball, and, for a time, that's what it was. ... but it's the way it is."

Kemp stayed with the Reds through 1989, signing with the Pirates for 1990. But it was his last year playing ball.

Kemp could have extended his career into 1991, he recalled, by going to Mexico. Other matters, however, were more pressing.

The plan had changed.

Speaking with Pirates general manager Larry Doughty that spring, Doughty was honest about Kemp's chances. Doughty, someone Kemp had known from the Atlanta area, almost apologized for his assessment that Kemp didn't really have a chance then to make the big club.

No apology was needed, Kemp recalled responding. "I said, 'you earn what you get," Kemp recalled. "And obviously at that point, I hadn't earned it."

Shortly after that, Kemp was released. He had that chance to go to Mexico with the Braves. But the Braves couldn't guarantee that Kemp would be in AAA Richmond by June. Kemp also just didn't want to extend his career by going to Mexico.

It was time for him to get out.

But it also came at a time when Kemp and his wife could go to Virginia and help her mother tend to her father. His wife's father was dying of cancer. They stayed with him until he passed away that June.

Shortly after that, Kemp's post-baseball career began, getting a job offer with a national fund raising company.

"I look back on those things," Kemp said, "and there's a bigger plan that was for me and Carol, my wife, then for me playing baseball.

"Would I have loved to play? Sure. I loved the game and I miss the game to this day, that pro ball side of it. But, you know what? I get to coach my son, but I also coach some high school ball."

"The timing of everything is all on Christ," Kemp added later.

Kemp has gone on to work with the Charlotte-area consulting firm NouvEON, for a boss that encourages him work around his coaching commitments.

He's also got his wife and three children, his children going through school to pursue their own dreams.

"I look back on it," Kemp said of his playing days, "and a lot of times, I was very fortunate and very blessed to do something I truly loved to do out of college.

"I got to do something that I loved, that most people don't get to do for one day. So I know how fortunate and lucky I am and I'm thankful for that."

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