Keone Kela uses baseball to connect with kids around the world
Keone Kela doesn't do anything half-hearted.
So it came as no surprise that the hard-throwing Rangers reliever made it his off-season mission to genuinely connect with young people both in the United States and China.
Kela, who won't turn 25 until the third week of his fourth season with the Rangers several months from now, has already accomplished a lot for his age. He's pitched most of the past three years out of the Rangers' bullpen, earning a reputation for a competitive approach and a four-seam fastball he can dial up to 100 mph. That gifted right arm plus hard work have enabled him to post a record of 16-7 with a 3.45 ERA and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings thus far in his career. The right-hander's demeanor on the mound is already prompting conjecture that he has a future as a big-league closer.
But his ambition doesn't stop at the foul lines. Kela, who was raised by a young, single mother and shuttled up and down the West Coast as a youngster, is eager to offer hope for kids growing up under difficult circumstances. He figured with three years as a major leaguer he was in a good position to make a difference – young enough to communicate effectively but established enough to command attention.
“I thought that having the platform that I do, I would be able to give young people an opportunity to meet somebody who had a dream and worked toward capturing it,” Kela explained a few days ago. “I definitely wanted these kids to have the idea in their mind. All it takes is a thought and hard work to be able to achieve anything that you want to do. That literally means anything.”
When his agent, Robert Fayne, suggested last May that there was an opportunity to visit Major League Baseball's Youth Development Centers in China this offseason, he quickly embraced the idea.
“I had been to Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, but I hadn't thought about China, so I was like, ‘You know what? I've never been, so let's do it,'” Kela said a few days ago. “I went to five different cities – Changzhou, Nanjing, Beijing, Shanghai and Wuxi. I visited all the development centers and got to meet a lot of great kids. I got to see the passion for the game. That was one thing that I definitely noticed. Even though there was a language barrier, we spoke baseball.”
Kela is not just committed to young people; he's focused on the way he communicates with young people, stemming from a deep-seated conviction that the best way for him to get his positive messages across is by letting his guard down, treating kids as equals and developing one-to-one connections with them.
Before visiting China on Nov. 10-21, Kela made a trip to New York, where he visited a youth group at the Exodus Transitional Community, an organization that helps incarcerated people transition back to mainstream society.
“I wanted to open up their minds to want to elevate to a higher understanding about not only themselves, but about whatever they want to do,” Kela said. “When I go out with these kids, it's never just solely about baseball. It's more about life. Baseball at the end of the day is a kid's game that I was fortunate enough to play as a man. There's so many things that are greater than this. This window to play professional baseball will soon be closing in the grand scheme of things.”
While in New York before the trip to China, Kela also visited with the New York Rockits, a basketball program in Chinatown for kids ages eight to 16.
“I just always try to kick it, be as regular as possible, whenever I step on these platforms,” Kela said. “Whether it's a young lady from Dallas or a young man from Houston, I'm just regular, like a big brother or uncle. Just chilling … It has to be an intimate situation.”
Kela also took keen interest in the different habits and culture of the young Chinese prospects he coached during his visits to the development centers. He came away feeling like he had learned as much as any of the young baseball talents with whom he engaged.
“It was really cool to see how these kids' attentiveness, wanting to learn, how observant they were,” he said. “It was also interesting see how the kids just go about their daily lives, compared to the kids that go about their daily lives here in America. It shed light on a lot for me.”