“A Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America’s Pastime”
Joe Kelly with Rob Bradford
Diversion Books, 288 pages
In addition to his considerable baseball success, Joe Kelly has led a colorful career. He is, for example, president of the Joe Kelly Fight Club, famous for a three-minute pre-game standoff with Scott Van Slyke before the 2013 NLCS, and known for his acute fashion sense that included wearing a Mariachi jacket to a White House reception for the Dodgers.
He is most recently famous, however, for a July 28, 2020, incident at Minute Maid Park that (perhaps) involved throwing at Alex Bregman and then striking out Carlos Correa. These events resulted in Kelly’s iconic smirk, a bench-clearing brawl, and a suspension. Then again, when your viral moment results in a building mural, what’s not to like?
That’s a long way of saying that Joe Kelly is a player with personality in addition to a wicked curveball.
So when he writes a book, readers know to expect something that’s not the typical sports tome, which is exactly what Kelly (and Rob Bradford) deliver in “A Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America’s Pastime.” He’s here to tell his story, to make a case for the game’s perfection, and to offer advice. It’s an engaging book — one that keeps the reader a little unsure as to what’s coming next — and mostly works.
What’s “A Damn Near Perfect Game” About?
This is a book about the awesomeness of baseball, and as Kelly makes clear early in “A Damn Near Perfect Game,” his intended audience is diverse:
I’m talking to the fans. I’m talking to the kids. I’m talking to the parents. I’m talking to those who gave up on the game, or those who never took the time to introduce themselves to it in the first place. I’m talking to the players. I’m talking to the coaches. I’m talking to the owners. I’m talking to the commissioner.
And because his audience is so vast, the approach he takes is unorthodox. “A Damn Near Perfect Game” is part memoir (Kelly’s stories about his alcoholic father are gutting) and part tell-all (what really happens in an MLB clubhouse?). It is part marketing plan (yes, he’s ready for the pitch clock and argues for the importance of educating fans about analytics) and part advice column (fellow baseball players, have fun, and be yourselves!). It is part polemic (looking at you, Rob Manfred and disinterested owners) and part parenting guide (including a letter to his children). And it is part testimonial with a vast range of personalities explaining why baseball is amazing.
Kelly’s style is breezy and fun. In addition, his college psychology major and interest in people show. Take this passage for example:
The bullpens at Fenway, Yankee Stadium, and Dodger Stadium are great because they give us relievers the perspective of the fans. The true fans. Nobody out by the bullpen is part of a corporate package or carries the cache of a season-ticket holder. These are the folks who view the baseball-watching experience for what it should be — a meticulous, multilayered, good-time meeting among friends.
So, when a kid starts yelling down to play “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” I’m not going to turn my back and find an excuse not to. Let’s play some “Rock, Paper, Scissors!” When the cameras caught me going back and forth with a young fan, that wasn’t the first or last time. In that case, we were playing two out of three, with a baseball being the payoff if he won. He didn’t win. No ball. Life lessons. But you know what? A few weeks later some kid in Kansas City smoked me. He got the baseball.
There has to be this back-and-forth between players and the fans. We’re all in this big, beautiful world of baseball together.
Notice what he accomplishes here: The reader gets an insider’s view of the bullpen while Kelly shows an understanding of the fan experience — and that baseball is an inherently social transaction, despite all the money involved. I especially appreciated “The Clubhouse: Inside Our Weird World,” which covers a range of topics: being drafted, the challenges of minor league baseball, the diversity of MLB teams, the importance of listening, the need for “glue guys,” and the euphoria that goes with winning a World Series. And, of course, he discusses in some detail the events that have come to define Joe Kelly as a baseball player and personality.
He also takes the reader through the process of an MLB suspension following the incident in Houston, even reproducing the letter he received from Chris Young, previously senior vice president of on-field operations for MLB. He includes the umpire reports used as evidence in addition to detailing his appeal. (Kelly lost.) Going behind the scenes is informative (and very cool).
Does the Book Have Any Problems?
Although “A Damn Near Perfect Game” is insightful and timely, that’s not to say it is without issues.
Kelly includes long passages from other sources, such as an editorial he wrote for the Los Angeles Times in March 2022, a transcript of an interview with Manfred (who is surprisingly sympathetic, something Kelly confesses he did not see coming), and a lengthy first-person account from Brett Phillips. Whenever Kelly trusts a voice that is not his own, the book loses momentum, leaving the reader waiting for Kelly to get back to his story.
The second problem is more serious. If baseball is, in fact, a “damn near perfect game,” then it should include everybody. That doesn’t always happen in this book. Only three women are mentioned in “A Damn Near Perfect Game”: Ashley (Kelly’s wife), Andrea (his mother), and Blake (his daughter). Well, he quotes a Juliana Hatfield line — she’s a Red Sox fan — but I’m not sure that counts.
As I worked my way through the book, the absence of women was distracting, but I told myself that given the book’s focus, whatever.
Then I got to the final chapter, “Don’t Take My Word for It.” This passage appears in the fourth paragraph: “Yes, I’m just one guy. But that’s the beauty of this whole conversation about our damn near perfect game. When it comes to the conversation about baseball, everybody has a sweet spot. Stories. Opinions. Facts. Figures. Smiles. Tears. Lessons.”
Kelly goes on to quote a range of men who describe their feelings about baseball: former players (e.g., Ken Griffey Jr., CC Sabathia ), current players (e.g., Bo Bichette, Nestor Cortes, Julio Rodríguez), managers (e.g., Alex Cora, Terry Francona), prospects (e.g., Anthony Volpe, Mike Burrows), athletes from other sports (e.g., Torey Krug, Kurt Busch), actors (e.g., Rob Lowe, Jon Hamm), and content creators (e.g., Rob Friedman, Gar Ryness).
He quotes 39 people, and none of them is a woman.
Just to be clear, I am a serious Jon Hamm fan. However, including him here and not, say, Kim Ng (the first female general manager of an MLB team) or Rachel Balkovec (the Tampa Tarpons manager) or Jen McCaffrey (Red Sox beat writer for The Athletic) does a terrible disservice to the conclusion of this book and undercuts its overall theme.
Should I Read It?
Absolutely. “A Damn Near Perfect Game” is a good read and a smart book that will make you think. Moreover, Kelly’s voice and enthusiasm are infectious and just plain fun.
Baseball needs more of this.
Featured image by Aaron Polcare (@bearydoesgfx on Twitter).