When his manager knocked on his door in the middle of the night, Kirby Yates knew his days there were done.
The Durham Bulls closer wasn’t going to close for the minor league team anymore.
That knocking meant sayonara North Carolina. Managers, flanked by their pitching coaches, bang on a player’s door in the wee hours when there’s news to break.
“We’ve been waiting to do this for a long time,” the Bulls manager, Charlie Montoyo, told Yates after the 2005 Kauai High School graduate opened the door.
The AAA skipper told Yates he was getting called up. He was going to pitch for the Tampa Bay Rays — the Bigs, the Majors, the highest level of professional baseball possible.
Kids dream of that moment, and Yates’ came in the dead of night.
“For them to be so happy for you to get the call, it’s an awesome feeling,” Yates said about his manager and pitching coach who were just as excited to deliver the news as Yates was to receive it. “When I found out, it was, obviously, pretty emotional. It’s been a long road.”
That road includes going undrafted after he graduated from Yavapai College in 2009 and working through two potential career-ending injuries for a pitcher. He came back from Tommy John surgery and a partially frayed labrum in his throwing shoulder. Making the majors is difficult enough, even for those drafted high who remain healthy. So the news was vindication as much as it was emotional.
“I thought, ‘Well, here we go,” Yates said, remembering the feeling of the news sinking in.
He called his dad in Omao. No answer. He called his brother, Tyler, a Kauai police officer who pitched for five years for the Mets, Braves and Pirates. It was Tyler who Yates called after he didn’t get drafted, and Tyler who told him to sign any pro contract he could and work his way up the ladder that way. And it was Tyler who told his younger brother, beginning in their back yard baseball days, to attack hitters, and keep the ball down, down, down. So it was fitting that Tyler answered.
“He doesn’t usually call after a certain time,” Tyler said about the call, knowing what it was about before he even answered.
“I’m a big leaguer now, dude,” Yates said into the phone.
“Yes, you are,” Tyler responded. “Congratulations, you deserve it.”
“I was so stoked for him,” Tyler told The Garden Island. “Every level he’s pitched at. He’s succeeded … He defined all the odds.”
After talking with his brother, Yates got a hold of his dad, Gary, who coached him when he was younger.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to Tampa,’” Yates said. “I got tears in my eyes and got choked up.”
What followed the conversations was a sleepless night and sleepless flight into St. Petersburg, Fla. It was in the cab ride to the park that the realization sunk in. This was it. These were the hitters he watched on TV. These guys were paid multiple millions to hit any pitching mistake 400 feet. Heck, it didn’t even have to be a mistake. They could deposit good pitches, ones that cut and moved.
But Kirby said he felt up to it.
“It’s just another mound,” he said of the approach he took heading into the June 7 debut against the Seattle Mariners. “They said, ‘Try not to look up.’ But I looked up. I looked everywhere. You only make your debut once, you know?”
The Lihue product threw 1 1/3 hitless ball in front of 24,000 people. He notched two strikeouts, including power hitting Robinson Cano on a 3-2 off-speed pitch.
“There’s a little difference,” he said about the quality of competition on the next level. “But I feel like, if I make my pitches, I’ll be all right. You got a lot of guys who are really good at hitting mistake pitches … But if you make your pitches, execute, you’ll do pretty well.”
The right hander has since pitched an inning against the Baltimore Orioles and notched another K. In Durham, Tampa’s AAA affiliate, Yates was a perfect 16 for 16 in save opportunities. The 27-year-old said his major league teammates have accepted him as one of their own. They did make him wear a sombrero and poncho on a plane flight as a reminder of his rookie status, which he said he was fine with.
“It’s all fun and games,” he said. “It’s not bad at all.”
The Rays’ manager, Joe Madden, known for attacking the game through his quirky, cerebral approach, has been fittingly positive, as well.
“He has these very inspirational quotes and different things he’ll pull out,” Yates said of his new manager, who is known for wearing thick, black reading glasses and applying defensive shifts more often than others. “He’s always very, very positive and you can always appreciate that.”
The 5-foot-10-inch Yates said he’ll still follow the advice of Tyler: Pound the ball and attack. Tyler offered some other advice after Yates called him the night of his promotion.
“I told him, ‘Don’t take it for granted. Play every day as if it’s your last,” Tyler said.
Yates said he appreciates how people on Kauai follow his career. Family still lives on the island, including his mom, Jana. It means a lot to him, living 5,000 miles away. As far as settling into the Big League life, Yates said he feels like he belongs. He’s not out of place, and he’s not intimidated facing down big-name hitters. Then again, there are still a lot of All Stars he’s yet to square off against, so who knows.
“I’m sure if I get to face Jeter I’ll be like, wow,” he said.