Red Sox Hurler Joe Kelly Joins Baseball’s Superstitious Elite

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Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images

Boston Red Sox fireballer Joe Kelly begins his workday with the same routine as a lot of men do: a nice shower, some time in the bathroom, and a quick shave. But instead of taking a razor to his face for the final portion of that manly ritual, he shears his arms instead. 

"The whole arm," Kelly says. "All the way up to the shoulder-pit area. I do both, because you gotta match. I don't want to be walking around with one hairy arm and one bald arm."

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Superstitions are as much a part of baseball as green grass and fly balls. But some players take their pre-game rituals more seriously and religiously than others. They are creatures of habit, zealously devoted to their superstitions. Some guys abstain from sex during winning streaks. Others refuse to wash their clothes, their uniforms, or their sweat-stained hats. Turk Wendell used to brush his teeth and eat four sticks of licorice between innings every time he pitched. Some pitchers like Wendell never step on the foul lines. Wade Boggs ate chicken before each of his 2,479 career games.

But Kelly, a righty starter, shaves his arms bare every fifth day. Since he was in the minor leagues, it's something he's done out of habit mostly because he doesn't want to be unbearably sticky between starts, or picking off the bits of rosin out of his arm hair all week. Think: Clark Griswold reading magazines in bed.

Pitchers use a bag of powdered rosin on the mound to improve their hold on the ball, but on days they don't pitch, nobody wants to be caked in tar.

"It was getting stuck in my hair for days after I pitched," Kelly says. "Wearing a suit, or a long-sleeve shirt, it would get all over my clothes. One of the guys on the team mentioned to me he shaved his arms, so I tried it one day and it ended up working pretty well. I stuck with it."

Kelly's personality is as colorful as his pre-game habits. He's been known to dance like nobody's watching, and he got his first job as a pitcher after his arm strength was revealed on the practice days he spent trying to plunk guys near the dugout from deep in center field.

While his arms might be cool and free of friction, the stuff he's laying on opposing batters is straight lava-hot. With a fastball that tops out at 101 mph, Kelly has some of the most intimidating stuff in baseball. The Red Sox are still trying to figure out the best way to deploy their nuclear weapon, bouncing Kelly between the bullpen and a starting role. 

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"It's so much easier knowing exactly when you're going to play." Kelly prefers starting. "The mentality is a little bit different. You put all your focus into one day. And as a reliever, you have to lock in when it's your time to start pitching otherwise it's mentally draining out there if you're ready to pitch every game and you don't get into three games in a row."

Kelly's journey to the mound was not a direct path. His trek began when he was a bomb-throwing outfielder at the University of California, Riverside. When the team's closer got hurt, his manager asked him to try out for the spot.

"I threw a couple pitches and the ball came out pretty good so he ran into the clubhouse, got the radar gun and I threw another pitch," Kelly says. "The next pitch, I got 95 and it pretty much sealed the deal from there. He said to start practicing pitching because, ‘You throw harder than anyone we've ever seen.'"

That was the first time Kelly was clocked with a radar gun. Now every pitch he throws during a game is clocked, but he says he doesn't pay attention to those numbers during a game. However, the first time he hit triple digits was something he vividly remembers.

"It was awesome," he says. "Not many people can do it." His secret to throwing gas is a combination of strength, mechanics, and timing. And, believe it or not, being mellow.

"Everything has to be perfectly timed," Kelly says. "I figured out that the more you're relaxed when you're trying to throw, the quicker you can move your arm because otherwise your muscles tense up and that can slow you down a little bit."

Kelly started his career with the Cardinals but was traded to Boston as part of a package for pitcher John Lackey last year. The Red Sox traditionally grow playoff beards, similar to in hockey, but the postseason is a long way off for the Fenway faithful.

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If Boston does turn it around and qualify for the playoffs though, there's at least one part of his body Kelly won't stop shaving: his arms.

"I can't because I'm going to have to pitch in one of those games," he says. "Everybody will be rocking the playoff beards though, even the coaching staff, who are all clean shaven right now. Hopefully our beards will be pretty long by then."

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