BY CHIP CIRILLO
People doubted Tony Kemp every step of the way.
Just ask his mom.
“I look at Tony and I never would have thought that he would be where he is now because all his life people have told him that he was too small or not strong enough to play baseball,” Catherine Kemp said. “I believe that the naysayers made him stronger. The more people told him he couldn’t do it, the more he was determined. Whenever people told him he couldn’t do it, he just reversed it.”
The former Centennial center fielder plays outfield and second base for the Houston Astros now.
He was the special instructor at the Centennial Winter Baseball Camp on Saturday. Turns out, 5-foot-6, 165 pounds was big enough after all.
Kemp is believed to be the only Centennial player ever to make it to the major leagues in the 22-year history of school.
“Even in the draft, it was question marks just because I was small,” Kemp said. “Being able to make it to the big leagues and have the success that I have is kind of cool to come out here and the high school guys see that they’re much taller than me. So it’s like, ‘See, you can play in the big leagues, too. There’s nothing to it.’ ”
Kemp smiles and lists his height at 5-7 with cleats on.
“I think you compensate with the size with a smaller strike zone, so I think that’s how you get by,” Kemp said. “There’s always a positive.”
Kemp helped Vanderbilt make its first College World Series appearance in 2011 and he was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 2013.
“He doesn’t worry about his height, he doesn’t use it as a crutch,” Centennial coach Rob Baughman said. “He does pretty much what all the bigger guys do. He uses his speed and works his tail off.”
One of Kemp’s most memorable moments at Centennial came when he jumped over an Oakland catcher to score a run. It was a scary play because Kemp landed on his head after leaping over the catcher.
“I thought he broke his neck, to be honest with you,” Baughman said. “You can probably Google it and you can find it somewhere.”
Another memorable play came on a diving catch against Battle Ground Academy. “It’s still talked about,” Baughman said.
Houston drafted Kemp in the fifth round in 2013.
He shuttled between the minor leagues and Houston many times during the last three years, but he stuck with the Astros after being promoted on May 16.
“It’s tough, especially being on a World Series team, and understanding how good our team was,” Kemp said. “It was hard to crack that roster. Going back and forth, you’ve just got to be mentally tough and make sure you take care of your own self on the field.”
Houston won its first World Series in 2017 and made it to the American League Championship Series last season.
Kemp hit .263 with six homers and 30 RBIs in 97 games with the Astros last season. A talented defensive player, he hit .286 in the postseason.
“I don’t want to be complacent, but I think I set myself up for the years to come,” Kemp said.
Kemp and former Overton shortstop Mookie Betts competed against each other in the same district in high school and they renewed their rivalry in the ALCS in October.
“After a couple games, you could tell the momentum was on Boston’s side,” Kemp said. “Being able to play against Mookie and see what type of player he’s blossomed into is good.”
Betts, a right fielder for Boston, was named the AL Most Valuable Player in November.
“It was unbelievable, the things he was doing at the plate,” said Kemp, who was Betts’ travel-league teammate for three summers in high school. They both graduated high school around the same time.
Kemp throws right-handed and bats left thanks to his older brother, Corey, who played catcher in the minors for Milwaukee.
“When I was growing up, my brother made me bat left-handed,” Tony said. “He wouldn’t let me bat right-handed. He made me a lefty and he knew that lefty batters were a little bit more attractive.”
Kemp reports to spring training Feb. 20 in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Houston is 786 miles southwest of Centennial, but several campers were wearing Astros t-shirts and jerseys in honor of their favorite Cougar.
“It always brings a smile to my face to be able to give instruction to kids that have big dreams like I had when I was their age,” Kemp said. “It’s really cool to see how much fun they’re having.”
Kemp recently started a Kemp’s Kids foundation that teams up with the Boys and Girls Clubs to help Houston’s inner-city youth afford the costs of sports programs. The foundation will run its first camp in January.
“He’s a better individual than he is a baseball player and that says it all about Tony,” Baughman said.