ST. PETERSBURG — The big news came a week ago in the middle of the night when Kirby Yates heard someone pounding on his apartment door in Durham, N.C.
It was Charlie Montoyo, manager of the Durham Bulls, the Rays’ Triple-A team, delivering the best wake-up call Yates will ever receive:
Get packing. You’re needed in Tampa Bay.
Kirby called his dad, Gary, but couldn’t find the words. He just cried. Gary understood. His boy was going to the big leagues.
“Everybody talks about the journey. I can appreciate it, because it was so hard to get here,” Yates said. “It really was.”
It wasn’t that long ago when the 27-year-old right-handed reliever was certain baseball was through with him.
It was the day after the 2009 draft, three days of selections by the 30 major-league teams. All those names called, and not one was “Kirby Yates.”
Over steaks and beer at a backyard barbecue at their home in Koloa, Hawaii, Yates and his dad talked about the future. Yates was 22. He needed four years to get through two years of baseball at Yavapai (Ariz.) Junior College because of Tommy John surgery.
Yates did have a scholarship to a small four-year college in Colorado that he planned on honoring. But as far as pitching in the major leagues like older brother Tyler, well, that was over.
“At the time I was 22 years old. I kind of realized the chances of me getting drafted weren’t very good anymore,” Yates said. “I was trying to focus on something else. I was still going to play college baseball, so you never know, but ...”
The next morning, Yates was awoken by what now ranks as the second-best wake-up call of his life. It was Jayson Durocher, an area scout from the Rays, calling with an offer of a roster spot for the Rays’ rookie league team in Princeton, W.Va., and a plane ticket to get there.
Not quite sure of what he was hearing, Yates told Durocher he’d call him back. Then Yates called Tyler. Yates said the conversation went like this:
“Dude, I just got a call and they asked me if I wanted a roster spot.”
“What did you say?”
“I don’t know what this meant. I told him I’d call him back.”
“Dude, are you stupid? Call him back. He could be on the phone with somebody else.”
Yates called Durocher. His answer was yes. Durocher told him the offer came with a $500 signing bonus. Yates spent it on a PlayStation 3 that broke two months later.
“It cost more to fly him from Hawaii to Princeton than what we gave him as a signing bonus,” Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison said.
Yates’ climb to the big leagues was stalled by shoulder surgery in 2010. That was the perfect time for Yates to question his future in baseball. How will the organization view an undrafted free agent with a bum shoulder who is now 24 and hasn’t pitched above high-Class A? Yates answered whatever doubts some might have had by pitching 212⁄3 scoreless innings when he returned from the surgery.
“I think that kind of saved me,” Yates said.
Three years later — Saturday against Seattle — Yates was on the mound at Tropicana Field, retiring the first four major-league batters he ever faced during his big-league debut.
“That’s pretty crazy,” Yates said.
What’s crazier is the first player drafted or signed by the organization in 2009 to reach the Rays is Kirby Yates, the undrafted free agent who was thinking of becoming a fireman.
“We got lucky, but sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” Harrison said. “The thing you can’t measure is what’s inside those guys. Kirby is a tough competitor. Kirby fought his way through some injuries. He had shoulder problems and he hung in there. He pitched his butt off the last two years at Triple-A and finally gets his opportunity. It’s a wonderful story.”