Ahead Of The Curve
He’s fashioned himself into an all-star relief pitcher for the San Diego Padres, but Kaua‘i’s Kirby Yates is just as proud of the work he’s doing with the isle’s youth.
As an all-star closer for the San Diego Padres this past season, Kaua‘i’s Kirby Yates really stood out, leading the league in saves and posting a career-best 1.19 ERA, the lowest among all relievers.
Baseball had always been the family pastime in the Yates household, where his mother Janna and father Gary raised their three boys on the island’s South Shore. His two older brothers, Spencer and Tyler, were already playing Little League when Yates saw his first MLB game on television and knew that’s what he wanted to do.
“It was one of those things,” he says. “It was instilled in a pretty early age.”
For Yates, 32, baseball was and is a way of life.
“My brothers played all the time, so I was always at the park, always following them,” he recalls. “I would take bats and go back behind the dugout and kind of have my own game.
“There were times when I was 4 years old and my dad was the coach. He would sneak me in the game for the last couple innings. The coaches and everybody knew, so that was pretty cool.”
Not only did his older brothers introduce him to the sport that would one day be his career, but they also helped instill in him the determination that helped him succeed. Yates recalls the close-knit competitiveness growing up as the baby of the brood.
“We used to have wiffle ball games at our house,” he says. “We were always out in the front yard. I was pitching to them and they were pitching to me, and it got pretty competitive. Whoever would win would be pumped, and the guys who lost would go in the house and pout.”
He says it was those early afternoon competitions that taught him to throw a curve-ball.
“We used to make our own balls; tape them up so they would move certain ways,” Yates says. “They were in high school at the time, and I was probably 7 or 8 years old and trying to keep up. It was a lot of fun, and we still talk about it to this day.”
All three boys earned college scholarships playing baseball. Spencer was recently named baseball head coach for Kaua‘i High School, while Tyler is a retired MLB player.
For Yates, it all began with Little League. He recalls playing on the Westside, where his Kōloa team had ongoing rivalries with Waimea and Kekaha.
“Even when we got to high school, we were all friends, but we all knew we were pretty good teams and we all wanted to win,” he says. “I remember playing Little League over here at Hanapēpē Stadium, and there were a couple championship games. The entire outfield was packed with cars and people were watching. For a young kid, that was a pretty neat atmosphere. It’s still some of the best memories I’ve ever had playing baseball.”
Moving from the Little League championships to MLB star, though, takes more than talent. There was the hard work and sacrifice that came with it.
“I think I was determined that this is what I wanted to do, and I’d been blessed, but I’m no more talented than anybody else,” says Yates. “I just really, really wanted it.
“I go back to that word ‘determination,’ where you’ve been trying to do this your whole entire life. For me, it was just one of those things. I never stopped believing that I could do it, regardless.”
Yates was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 26th round of the 2005 draft out of Kaua‘i High School, but chose not to sign. Instead, he attended Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona. In 2009, he signed with the Tampa Bay Rays as an undrafted free agent.
He admits there were times when he thought his career was going to end and he had to change gears.
“I think that’s just one of those things: You put your head down and keep going until you reach your goal,” he says.
Yates recalls that as a changing point in his career.
“It’s not that I wasn’t (already) motivated, but I needed to get a little more disciplined, I needed to get better at my workouts and actually go be a big league baseball player.
“I think from that point on, it was one of the harder decisions I ever made: to leave home and not be able to come back to Kaua‘i when the season’s done,” he adds. “I have a lot of fun when I’m on the island, surf all the time. I’m as happy as I can be, but I think I switched that gear and (it) was something I had to give up to keep chasing this dream.”
During the offseason, Yates resides in Arizona with his wife Ashlee and their two children. It allows him to play the sport he loves at the highest level.
“I love to play baseball, and I don’t want to settle for what I’ve got. I want to keep going and try to push myself,” he continues. “I don’t think anybody pushes me more than I push myself. I don’t just want to be in the big leagues, I want to stay in the big leagues; I think that’s one of the things that has changed in the last few years. Instead of just being satisfied to be there, now I want to be one of the best.”
Part of being the best, he adds, is giving back to others, especially the younger generation.
To that end, Yates and brother Tyler hosted their first Yates Baseball Clinic for pitchers and catchers (ages 9-18) back on Nov. 2 for kids in Kōloa Youth Baseball Association. They were joined by guest coaches like Texas Ranger third baseman/catcher Isaiah Kiner Falefa, and former MLB pitchers Paul Ah Yat, Kanekoa Texeria and Shane Komine.
The clinic was free of charge for the 100 keiki participants.
For the kids participating in the clinic that day, Yates offered this sage advice: “Chase your dreams and believe in yourself. Anything you want in life that’s worth doing ain’t easy. That’s no different from being a fireman or a police officer, or anything like that: Nothing’s ever easy. If you want it, you have to go and do it. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do anything.”