In Ryan Kalish's senior year of high school, most teams had resigned themselves to the idea that they were evaluating him not for the 2006 draft but instead for 2009.
The two-sport star had a commitment to play baseball and football (quarterback) at the University of Virginia. Many scouts viewed it as a foregone conclusion that he was going to Charlottesville, and that his professional baseball future would begin after the draft that followed his junior year.
And by and large, the baseball world was right. Had any of 29 teams drafted Kalish, he might well have honored his commitment to UVA.
But then there were the Red Sox.
“I’ll be honest with you. The fact that it was the Red Sox thing, we grew up there, we had a lot of family still there, that put it over the top without a doubt,” said Kalish's father, Steve. “If it had been anyone else, I don’t know [if he would have signed], to be honest with you.
“Giving up UVA was really tough, but it was really his decision. He wanted to sign. Once things happened up at Fenway, he got the bug, he said he wanted to try this now. He had the option to play college football at some point, had some real good opportunities with that, so he kind of felt, ‘I want to do this now, give it my full time and effort, and if it works out it works out. If it doesn’t, you know, I’m 24-25, I’ll go throw the ball for a team in the fall.’”
Kalish’s father and mother (Eileen) both had been born in Dorchester and raised in the Boston area. Steve Kalish recalled watching the Impossible Dream season unfold in 1967 on a TV that was brought into his classroom. Both parents were dyed-in-the-wool Sox fans, a trait that they passed onto their son despite living in New Jersey, the heart of Yankees country.
“He took a lot of heat,” Eileen recalled.
Growing up, Ryan developed a love of players on the Sox. Interestingly, the player to whom he gravitated is the same one to whom he is now invariably compared.
“Trot Nixon was just a hard-nosed guy,” the 22-year-old outfielder said. “He’d always been my favorite.”
In his senior year, Kalish suffered injuries to his back and shoulder that limited him in the field. He ended up serving as a first baseman and designated hitter for most of that year, a fact that deterred some of the teams that had been following him, especially given the potential price tag and the signability questions that followed him.
“The Red Sox just stuck with him,” Steve Kalish said.
Ray Fagnant, the Sox area scout who was following Kalish at Red Bank High School, was drawn to any number of the player’s attributes. Even without watching his actions on the field, Kalish exuded confidence and charisma, with players naturally drawn to his leadership on the field.
“He just loved to play. He was just a throwback,” Fagnant said. “I don’t like to use that cliché because it’s so overused, but he’s a true baseball player and he’s a baseball player with tools. He was fun to scout, because he loved when guys would see him, he loved to work, he loved to show his ability.”
Fagnant had gotten a good look at Kalish’s outfield skills prior to his senior year, when coaching him on the Red Sox team at the East Coast Pro Showcase in the summer of 2005. When patrolling the outfield, Kalish showed the athleticism, instincts and strong arm that would be expected from a quarterback.
At the plate, whether at the Showcase or during his senior year, no single game stood so much as did Kalish’s overall approach and the consistency of his quality at-bats and hard contact.
“He went his entire senior year without a swing and miss once,” Fagnant said. “He made hard contact every time. I don’t think he had a lot of home runs his senior year, but he’s so strong, he’d hit the ball in the alleys, he always made good solid contact. You knew the power was going to come.”
For the power to develop, Kalish would have to fix a small mechanical flaw. He had a tendency to drift toward the ball, something that deprived him of that power. But the Sox were convinced that if he could learn to stay back on the ball, he had enough strength that he could generate backspin to translate gap shots into home runs down the road.
That, at least, was how the Sox evaluated him at a pre-draft workout at Fenway Park. Of course, it was also at that draft workout that it became apparent that the Sox might have an opportunity that other clubs did not.
Several of Kalish’s family members — not just his parents, but also a number of relatives who reside in the area — accompanied him to the workout and then did their best to empty the inventory of an adjacent souvenir store.
“They made it pretty well known that he wanted to be a Boston Red Sox,” said Padres assistant general manager (and former Sox amateur scouting director) Jason McLeod. “He was a kid who we spent a lot of time scouting and had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to not go to the University of Virginia.”
That fact became apparent almost as soon as the Sox drafted Kalish in the ninth round (a spot in the draft that reflected other teams’ doubts about whether he would turn pro). The draft fell on his graduation day at Red Bank.
As he prepared to walk across the stage, Kalish engaged in an act of enthusiastic audacity among his Yankee-loving peers. He put on a Red Sox hat and beamed. The idea of him signing went from an open question to a foregone conclusion thanks to the identity of the team that selected him.
The money (a $600,000 bonus) suggests that the Sox viewed him as a player whose talents were akin to those of a player taken in the supplemental first or second rounds. The team, however, also believed that there was a good chance that if Kalish went to the University of Virginia, his draft stock would likely increase against higher levels of competition. And so, the Sox were more than willing to meet his asking price.
Since then, the Sox have seen exactly what Fagnant did starting with the time that he first encountered Kalish while coaching him prior to his senior year at the East Coast Pro Showcase. He has combined an impressive skill set with an infectious desire to win and a drive to achieve constant improvement in his game.
As the Sox had hoped, he has added power to his game, giving him a well-rounded skill set that lends itself to visions of a player with 20-20 (20 homers, 20 steals) potential who can also play solid outfield defense.
Those visions, however, are a bit down the road. For now, Kalish — who followed his 2-for-4 debut by going 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly on Sunday — continues to develop, with a major step forward in the form of his big league debut (and a number of firsts, among them: his first game start, hit, run and RBI) now behind him.
“We need to be a little careful. You know what happens here. Kid comes up and gets two hits and he’s going to go to Cooperstown. If he’s 0-for-4, you want to send him out,” Sox manager Terry Francona said. “We guard against that. He’s a good young player and we really like him.
“I think it’s a big compliment to him that we felt confident enough in him to bring him up right smack in the middle of our season and he can help us win games. We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of young guys like that come through our system and he’s another one.
“When you bring up young kids right in the middle of the season and they’re solid enough that the veterans buy in, then you get the energy from their youth, but you don’t get the other stuff that can come with youth, because he’s such a mature kid. So, we’re really fortunate.”
It is a sentiment that Kalish reciprocates. Clearly, his decision to sign with the team for whom he grew up rooting has proven a rewarding one.
“College is great, but it was a really good offer as far as the Red Sox,” Kalish said. They made it clear they wanted me pretty bad. It was really cool. It’s something where I’m really thrilled that I signed with the Red Sox.”