He spent a childhood in Southern California and forged his baseball career in climates that ranged from subtropical to semi-arid, so perhaps you can forgive Ian Kennedy if he forgot the pure bliss of a crisp autumn evening.
After nearly a decade spent in Arizona and San Diego, he could barely remember what it felt like to watch the leaves fall and the foliage change. He forgot the joys of winter, too — the snowy days, the warmth of a fireplace, the hankering for hot chocolate on a Sunday morning.
The luxury of the changing seasons was not why Kennedy, a 32-year-old right-hander, relocated his young family to Kansas City last year after signing a five-year, $70 million contract with the Royals. But if he is being honest, his first offseason in suburban Johnson County probably surpassed expectations.
“It was beautiful,” Kennedy said. “You really take it in.”
For Kennedy and his wife Allison, the decision to put down roots in Kansas City came last winter, in the days after he agreed to a long-term contract with the Royals. The family had four daughters under the age of 6, and their oldest, Nora, was set to begin kindergarten in 2016. Allison, a former basketball player at USC, had grown up outside St. Louis and was comfortable in the Midwest. Kennedy couldn’t imagine living apart from his family during the baseball season. So after six years with the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres, the Kennedy family uprooted from their home in Arizona and headed for Kansas City.
In the days after the ink dried on his new contract last January, Ian and Allison devised a house-hunting plan. Five days in town. A list of houses and neighborhoods. A real estate agent recommended by former Royal Mike Sweeney. In the span of a week, they toured 30 houses, looking for a neighborhood that felt right. They wanted other families around, of course. A big backyard for the girls. In the end, they settled on a home in southern Johnson County. One year later, they remain at peace with the move.
“We were just talking about it the other day,” Kennedy said. “We don’t regret it one bit — just being where we play. At the end of the season, you don’t have to move. Your quality of life just goes up by being in the community that you’re playing in.”
Kennedy’s status as a year-round Kansas City resident makes him a rarity inside the Royals’ clubhouse. Yet it also presents an interesting question about his future. His five-year, $70 million deal includes an opt-out clause after the second season, a one-time trigger that would allow him to test free agency again next winter. But would he be prepared to pass on the $49 million remaining on the final three years of the deal — and uproot his young family again?
On Monday morning at Royals camp, Kennedy stood in front of his locker and mulled over the question. It’s not the first time he’s thought about it. A few weeks ago, he says, a friend back in Kansas asked the same thing.
“You know, I don’t know,” Kennedy said. “Allison and I approach everything like, ‘If God decides to move us and we decide we’re going somewhere else next year, we’ll see.’
“We’ll approach it just like we did. We thought we were going to stay in Arizona, because we’d loved living there. But we do kind of adjust. And we do like to plant roots in the city that we live in and enjoy where we are in that moment.”
For now, of course, Kennedy is more focused on baseball than his mortgage. In his first season with the Royals, he posted a 3.68 ERA in 33 starts, leading the club with 195 2/3 innings. The numbers trended even better during the second half. After allowing 21 homers in his first 17 starts before the All-Star break, Kennedy made an adjustment in late July, attempting to pitch lower in the strike zone before elevating his four-seam fastball in pitcher-friendly counts. The change in tactics paid dividends. In his final 14 starts, he allowed just seven homers while logging a 2.91 ERA.
“He’s sharpened his skills,” Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “There’s no substitute for experience. Ian likes to pitch up in the zone, but he was pitching in the danger zone. So what I tell Ian is, ‘We’re going to go low, low, low — until we go up.’ ”
As another season beckons, Kennedy is seeking to replicate the success. At the age of 32, he believes he has found the right groove. As camp began, he was focused on neither change nor adjustment. He sees no need to alter his routine or add another pitch, he says, instead focusing on polishing the edges.
“You know who you are,” Kennedy said. “I’m not going to change very much. But the adjustments people make to you, and how quickly you can adjust to those guys, that’s what makes pitching fun. That’s what I like about it.”
When the season begins in April, he will slot somewhere near the top of the Royals’ rotation, helping lead a top four that will feature Danny Duffy, Jason Hammel and Jason Vargas. He will also return home to Kansas City.
Yes, it’s home now, even if that still sounds a little strange. In the last 12 months, the Kennedys made it so. They joined a local Bible study in their neighborhood, immersing themselves in the community. Their oldest daughter started kindergarten last August, attending the same elementary school as Alex Gordon’s oldest son. And perhaps most important, they found the restaurants that work for a family with four girls under 6 years of age.
There could be four more years ahead, too. But that will sort itself out, Kennedy says. For now, it all feels like the right move.
“We love Kansas City,” Kennedy said. “We love our neighborhood and just being in the Midwest.”