Thursday, May 14, 2009

ATH: Kyle Yates!

Former Tivy hurler itching to keep playing
By Bill Begley, The Daily Times, Published May 14, 2009

FORT WORTH — It began in February, that familiar itch, but for the first time in a long time, it wasn’t certain about how it would get scratched.

Still, the itch was there, no doubt — and that told Kyle Yates everything he needed to know.

“In all the time I played baseball, I always looked forward to next year, and this year was no different,” the former Tivy star said. “For the last 18, 19 years of my life, there was always baseball to play by around March 1. For the first time in a while, it wasn’t there and I didn’t know how long before I would get to play again, and I missed it.

“That just told me that I loved it — and I do, still, love baseball — and that I still want to play. All along I’ve said I’ll know, that my mind would tell me if I really wanted to play another year, and the fact is I am excited about having the opportunity to go out and play another year.”

Yates’ season opens today, when the Fort Worth Cats host the Grand Prairie Groundhogs at LaGrave Field.

This is Yates’ second stint with the Cats, members of the independent league American Association, and his first full season. Yates signed with the team last season after being released by the Double-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

“That was hard, but it’s a part of nearly every player’s career,” said Yates, who was drafted in the 13th round by the Blue Jays in 2004 and was 28-25 with a 3.90 ERA in 3 seasons in the Jays’ farm system.

He was let go after a slow start at New Hampshire — what was his third stint with the Double-A team — after “losing a little bit of velocity,” Yates said, a product of some shoulder weakness.

Yates came home and took some time off before heading north for Fort Worth, where he moved into the bullpen. He made 40 appearances with the Cats, going 2-5 with three saves while fashioning a 4.66 ERA.

When the season ended, Yates took the opportunity to go back to school. He moved into a house on Lake Austin with friends from his days as a pitcher with the University of Texas and began taking classes toward his degree in corporate communication.

“I got about 12 hours in, and I am about a semester away from getting finished,” said Yates, who expects to finish school — including a business minor — by this fall or next spring. “I always knew I was going to go back to school. It was not a matter of if, but when I would have the time.

“Baseball has become a year-round job. Spring training began around Feb. 1 and I usually go home about the first week of September. I’d take two or three weeks off and then start running and lifting and conditioning. You felt like you had to, because you knew if you weren’t, there were guys out there who were, and if you didn’t you’d fall behind. Spring training rolled around real fast.”

The extended break gave Yates time to rest and rehab his shoulder, and time for “golf and hunting and hanging around with the guys from playing in college.” It also gave him time to remember how much he enjoyed playing baseball.

“I got the chance to remember how much I enjoyed the opportunity to play baseball, to put a uniform on and go out and compete every day,” he said. “For a while there, it got to be a grind — you forget what it’s like to be 18 or 19 years old and be excited about going out and playing and competing.”

Now 26, Yates said he’s rediscovered that enthusiasm, and looks forward to competing for a season healthy, rested and focused.

Yates said he’d heard stories about playing in independent leagues, that the competition was not on par with some levels of the minor leagues, but found that he saw a number of familiar faces last season, former teammates and foes from his college and minor league days, and that the competition in the American Association “is really pretty good.”

Mostly, he said, he has rediscovered the simple joy of putting a uniform on and playing the game again, an opportunity to put on a uniform and take the field without worrying about how closely each outing is scrutinized or analyzed.

Playing again, he said, feels pretty good.

“You never want to say it’s your last year, because you never know what could happen,” Yates said. “With the chance to go out there healthy and a fresh start, there is nothing that says you can’t wind up pitching in the major leagues.

“But, the fact is, at some point in your career, you have to step back and look at the good things you have done and the great opportunities you’ve had and appreciate them for what they are. This is a great opportunity for me — I get to put a uniform on and go out there every day and compete, and I do have a new perspective on that. I realize it’s a blessing to have that chance, and I’m excited about this season and this opportunity I have.”

He is, in fact, itching to get started.

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