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How Joe Kelly's desire to be an undercover agent shaped his view of postseason pressure

Rob Bradford
October 12, 2018 - 11:13 am

It's a common question for professional athletes.

"What would you want to do if you weren't doing this?"

Joe Kelly's answer is quick, decisive and at least a bit eyebrow-raising.

"I wanted to go into the DEA or I wanted to work undercover," said the Red Sox reliever. "Psychology looks good on paper for those kinds of jobs. I wanted to sell drugs on the streets undercover. I wanted to shave my head, get tatted up. I feel like I could have done good."

Why is this important when it comes to the Red Sox' upcoming American League Championship Series against the Astros? Well, as it turns out, that path to becoming that undercover agent ultimately allowed Kelly some coping mechanisms when it dealing with postseason pressure.

Of course, he went to the University of California-Riverside for baseball. But while there Kelly found himself willingly diving into the world of his major, psychology.

"Oh yeah," he said when asked if there was a genuine interest in that line of education.

The classes left so much of an impression on Kelly that he finds himself referencing the lessons while trying to decipher the good and bad when dealing with postseason pressure.

"It's about understanding the basic instincts of the brain," Kelly said. "I wouldn’t say it necessarily helps me when I’m going through it. I don’t sit there on the mound thinking, ‘What did I learn in that Psych 128 class. I’m feeling anxious out here. I’m feeling anxiety.’ It’s not like I’m going back and trying to remember the coping mechanisms of how to deal with this situation. But I think learning about that before going into those situations, subconsciously helps me out a lot. But it’s not I’m thinking, ‘I know what to do with this. Let me check my notes and see if there are any lectures I can pull up.’ 

I think just understanding from emotions to how people think how different personalities fit how people see the world. I think that has helped me try and understand people and myself, as well, on a deeper level besides baseball. It’s good to know which players you see or have on your team who understands it more, or who has knowledge when situations come up how to handle them. You can handle situations and still not be good. Your mechanics can be off. I’m not an expert, but there are little things to help here and there."

While Kelly has had his struggles this season, he has continued a trend of performing in the postseason. 

In Game 2 against the Yankees came on to get Aaron Judge to fly out to right while inheriting a bases-loaded jam, ultimately going on to pitch 2 1/3 innings of one-hit ball. For his career, Kelly has allowed runs in just one of his 13 postseason relief appearances, going 8 2/3 playoff bullpen innings for the Red Sox without giving up a run or walk.

"I think it does. I would say there is a correlation. A decent one," he said of taking an interest in the mental side of the game. "I’m not going to say it’s huge but I think it helps more than it hurts, that’s for damn sure, and throughout all aspects of life. With my first child, there are things he would do I would remember in my developmental psych class that I would remember little things that pop out. Why is he acting this way? Why can’t he sleep? It’s because he learned something new so he’s thinking about it. Knowing about it definitely gives you a little bit of an edge. Maybe the steps I learned in classes and my subconscious is something that triggered something or is helping me.

"I would take it even further if I was really looking at myself for research. You don’t know how people’s brains are going to work. You can be dominant and so good when you get in a situation like that, maybe that person is crapping down their leg mentally but they’re just so good they’re throwing down the middle and they’re popping it up. You just don’t know. Then there is the other part where a guy is fringy but dominates when the pressure gets big. So then you’re like maybe he’s mentally superior. There are the aspects of it."

So, would Kelly entertain the original goal of living life undercover after his playing days?

"I think that has come and gone," he said. "But I find all of it really interesting."