The Interview: Red Sox Pitcher Joe Kelly
The Red Sox’s puckish pitcher is nothing but trouble—and is winning fans’ hearts one prank (and punch) at a time.
Let’s put it this way: You don’t want to mess with Joe Kelly. The Red Sox’s right-handed relief pitcher seized the spotlight earlier this season when he wound up throwing haymakers at the Yankees’ first baseman on the field, but Kelly has plenty of other weapons at his disposal, including a 100-plus-miles-per-hour fastball and a refreshing fondness for pranks. And not just any pranks—the kind that take planning, a strong stomach, and sometimes weeks to develop. After wolfing down a meal of chicken and rice washed down by a Gatorade, Kelly talked about what it’s like to play in a tough baseball town like Boston and, of course, what makes a good clubhouse gag.
You’re known in the baseball world as quite the prankster. What do you consider your greatest triumph?
What’s the best prank I’ve ever pulled? Is it all right if it’s not PG-rated?
Go for it.
When I played with St. Louis they had a player named Peter Bourjos, who’s still with the Atlanta Braves. I forget exactly what he did, but he ended up pranking me somehow during a game. And I know this is going to sound really weird, but I got a bag, and I ended up having some feces—not mine, it was animal—and I put it in a bag. So he’s playing in the field and I ran into the clubhouse, got the bag, and ran to the parking lot where the players all park and I stuffed it underneath the seat of his car. And the best part about it is we were going on a road trip. So it was in his car, I would say, for a week. He was always going, “Man, it smells. What smells in my car?” It was a weeklong prank in the middle of summer in St. Louis, where it was like 100 degrees. That’s probably one of my best pranks, and I felt really bad, so I might never do it again. I bought some air fresheners for him and stuff. I don’t think I took it too far—I took it just far enough.
You found that perfect line?
Yeah, it would’ve been too far if it was my own poop, but it wasn’t, so that was the good thing about it. It was hard for me to keep a straight face every time I’d see him for that whole week, because I was just wondering, “Man, did he get it yet? He get it yet?” Then he finally got it, and then he didn’t admit to me that I’d gotten him, and then like two, three weeks later, I’m like, “Dude, did you ever get the poop underneath your car?” He’s like, “Yeah, I didn’t want to let you know that you got me good.” I was like, “All right, just making sure. I don’t want it to still be there.”
Who’s the biggest prankster in the Sox clubhouse?
We’re not really pulling pranks lately.
Probably David Price. He does little stuff here and there, not major pranks. He’ll hide stuff in my shoes, he’ll hide stuff in my backpack. I’m like, “Dude, when did you do that?” And he’s like, “Did you find it?” He’ll do stuff like that, so I’ll probably say David Price.
Speaking of pranks, you’ve also dressed up and interviewed teammates as a fake reporter named Jim Buchanan. Where did you get the idea for that character?
The idea came from the Red Sox production team. When I was with St. Louis, I dressed up as an old man pranking the rapper Nelly, so during spring training the Sox came up to me and said, “Hey, we were thinking of doing something fun. We saw the video of you pranking Nelly. Would you mind dressing up and going out and pranking the guys?” And I was like, “Heck yeah, let’s do it.” They found this makeup artist who was around during spring training, and I wanted to be called James—Jim—and they added the name Buchanan.
The team said, “We just want five good minutes of footage.” It ended up turning into a little over 50 minutes of great footage, and they still have stuff they haven’t released yet, but they were very excited. It was a fun day—I got to prank my teammates, fans, and the security guards. So the whole day was one of those crazy, chaotic days, but ended up turning out well.
One of my favorite things about the character is that he tells the players stories about himself that they clearly don’t care about. Do you think reporters just really want to talk about themselves?
No. I don’t think so. But it was fun. It was one of those things where I asked my teammates hard-hitting questions that no reporter is going to ask. And then I went on the field where no reporters go, and even the real reporters were getting pranked because they’re like, “How does this guy have all this rein to go out on the field?” I took the whole media-credential thing way too far. It just goes to show: If you have a camera and a media pass, you can go anywhere.
Do you have a favorite moment in your career so far?
One of my favorite moments was probably the national anthem standoff in the 2013 National League Championship Series, just because it was something no one’s ever seen or done. I mean, now I’ve seen videos of college players doing it, high school players doing it, more big-league players doing it. We created kind of a, I don’t know how to put it—a lot of people jumped on the train and started doing it, so it was cool to see.
It started as something I would do all the time in St. Louis. We had to go out for the national anthem, so I would always stand on the baseline and make sure I was the last one to leave when the song was done. Just me trying to get a moral victory for the team, standing on the line as long as I could till the other team left. And I’d be like, “Look, guys, we’ve already won. We just beat them in the national anthem. And now we’re going to beat them on the field.” And during Game 2, a good dude, Dodgers player Scott Van Slyke, saw me celebrating afterward. I think that caught his attention and he started noticing what I was doing. And so, Game 6 rolls around, and I was standing on the line, and all of a sudden I see the whole Dodgers team leave and I see one guy still there. I’m like, “What the heck? This guy caught me. He knows what I’m doing.” I made eye contact and I’m like, “Man, this guy’s not leaving.” I’m like, “I’m not leaving.” And I turn around and my manager’s right there, and this was going on for a couple of minutes, and he looks at me and he’s a serious guy, Mike Matheny. I was a young guy, still finding my way and kind of nervous. This is now the playoffs, Game 6, and I’m like, “Man, I don’t know if I should be doing this.”
So, I turn around and Mike Matheny looks at me and he goes, “You better not freaking lose this.” And I’m like, “All right, yes! He’s on my side.” And so I just stood there until the game was starting and the umpire came out and was like, “Hey, you can leave the field.” In the end, the Dodgers think they won but I don’t think they won. If you look at the video, I gave, like, a fake walk-off, and then I came back and then Van Slyke left and the Dodgers started celebrating like they won. But I don’t think they realized that I gave a fake walk-off.
You started your career in St. Louis and now play in Boston, two high-pressure baseball cities with intense fans. Why do you think that you’ve been able to thrive in these environments where not all players do as well?
I think that’s just my personality. I’m a high-energy guy, always on the move, always looking for a little bit of excitement, and I think that I perform better, or I’d like to think so, when there’s more eyes. St. Louis sold out almost every game. Boston sells out almost every game. I like when the fans get loud and get behind the players, and it’s one of those things that I think just makes me shift, physically and mentally. It gets my blood going, makes me want to focus a little bit more and try to stay locked in and perform better, because that’s what the fans want.
Obviously, there’s a fierce rivalry with the Yankees here. What do you think makes for a good baseball rivalry?
First off, you need two very good baseball teams. The Yankees have a great team and we have a great team. I think, for a rivalry, you also have to have a long history. You can’t just create a rivalry in two years. But the Red Sox and Yankees have gone after each other since the cavemen. And then you need two passionate fan bases, where the fans hate one another. And the hatred between the fans and the passion between the players just leads to becoming a rivalry.
There was a well-known incident in April when you and Yankees first baseman Tyler Austin started fighting on the pitcher’s mound. And afterward, “Joe Kelly Fight Club” shirts started showing up everywhere. Do you own one?
I do not, but I do have family members that have them. I’ve never even worn one. I think it’d be kind of awkward to wear my own shirt. But guys in the clubhouse wear them all the time. J.D. Martinez, it’s one of his favorite shirts. Craig Kimbrel wears it when he’s not pitching that day. The guys in the clubhouse wear them all the time, so it’s cool to see. And the fans are wearing them on the road. I get fans screaming at me, “Joe Kelly Fight Club!”
How long did it take for the shirts to catch on and become a thing?
It all started right after the fight happened. Sully’s Brand, the brand that made the shirt, got them out into the world the next morning, which is pretty crazy. Something like 12 hours afterward, they’re producing a shirt. And there’s a guy standing behind me in the bullpen, he’s like, “Look, I got the shirt!” I’m like, “Oh, that’s sweet, man.” I happened to end up pitching two days later and they caught him on camera going berserk wearing the Fight Club shirt. That started the whole thing. With the publicity, we tried to just take advantage of it. My wife, Ashley, and I did a thing and teamed up with Sully’s and those shirts to try to raise some money and awareness for sex trafficking here and in other countries. So it’s cool to see.
Are you talking about Mission 108, the foundation your wife works with?
Mission 108 is something that my wife has been involved in over the past couple of years. She went on a trip to India to try to help these girls who are sex-trafficked starting at three years old. Mission 108 funds safe houses for victims who’ve escaped sex trafficking. All these girls come to the houses and try to live a normal life again. My wife is actually on the board, so she thought it was a great idea to take advantage of the opportunity because of the publicity after the fight happened. So she partnered with Sully’s and the Fight Club shirts and said, “Try to put it out there on Twitter, Facebook, everything, any media that you can.” If you donate $108 to Mission 108, you’ll get a Joe Kelly Fight Club shirt. Our goal was to raise $10,000. We raised close to $25,000 in a month. It’s just one of those things that, like I said, we just tried to take advantage of the spotlight at the time and a lot of people ended up jumping on board. So that was awesome.
Did you have a perception of Boston sports fans before you came here?
I did. My stepbrother was a die-hard Red Sox fan before I was even drafted to play baseball. Red Sox sheets and all that. And one of my best friends was a Red Sox fan, too. So I knew how much they loved the Red Sox and I knew how great the fans were. I had an idea coming in, but I did not know how crazy it was until I was actually a player. That was cool to see firsthand, to finally get it as a player rather than just hearing, “Boston fans are the best. They have die-hard fans. They eat, sleep, and breathe the Red Sox.” As a player, you finally come and see how much different it is here.