BOSTON — A California kid sporting Dodger blue, Joe Kelly still seemed at home as he perched atop a bench in the Fenway Park dugout.
He’d snagged a breakfast sandwich at one of his favorite old haunts, Mike and Patty’s, earlier in the day, and seemed genuinely at ease as he returned to the ballpark he called home for more than half a decade.
“It was a time,” Kelly cracked. “I was here for five and a half seasons. Ups and downs. Winning and losing. Being close with all the guys over there, obviously.”
The eccentric reliever paused and thought to himself for a moment. Then he opened up.
“I think the people, especially in my neighborhood in Squantum, probably meant the most to me,” Kelly said of the Quincy neighborhood. “I mean, I could let (my son) Knox go outside until nine o’clock at night.
“The neighborhood kind of watches over your kids. That old-school vibe. All the kids are outside, not playing video games. So it’s pretty fun to see. It’s probably one of the biggest things I miss.”
Kelly’s relationship with his neighbors was emblematic of the way Boston embraced him on an even bigger level.
Whether starting rotation castoff or World Series hero, Kelly was never afraid to be himself. He owned everything he did. And the Red Sox fans grew to love him for it.
A second inning tribute video showed the reliever pretending to be an elderly reporter, visiting kids at Children’s Hospital, screaming as he strode off the mound following his fifth scoreless World Series appearance in Los Angeles, and of course, punching a Yankee.
His fight with Tyler Austin was a galvanizing moment for the 2018 team, as Kelly showed they weren’t the it’s-not-me-it’s-them Red Sox. This was a group that was — quite literally — willing to fight for each other.
The montage led to a loud ovation from the Fenway Park crowd, and as Kelly walked to the bullpen in a Dodgers jacket, he tipped his cap towards the Red Sox dugout and smiled.
There was a ring shown in the video, but no pregame ceremony, which is probably for the best given last night’s guests at Fenway Park.
“I got it maybe two months ago when Tom Werner was in L.A.,” Kelly explained. “One of the guys from the PR team was like, ‘Hey, Tom Werner’s coming.’ I got the memo a little bit late. He showed up like 10 minutes before game time and I was like ‘Hey man, what’s going on?’”
The Red Sox exec presented him with the jewelry and Kelly appreciated the timing.
“I’d rather have it that way than get a ring out here in front of my teammates now,” he laughed.
When Kelly inked a three-year, $25 million deal to become a Dodger, Boston lost a serious arm in the bullpen. They’ve struggled to fill his and Craig Kimbrel’s spikes, but Kelly has followed from afar, and doesn’t think the issues are as dire as they seem right now.
“It’s a bullpen. It happens,” he reasoned. “There’s times guys pitch good and there’s times guys pitch bad. It’s just one of those things. They have a good team over there and a good bullpen. I know all those guys very well. It seems that they just all kind of hit their bad parts of the year at the same time.”
Kelly’s tenure in Los Angeles got off to a rocky start, and though he’s gotten back on track lately, he didn’t sugarcoat his own start.
“We’ve got 60 wins and I stunk for the first couple of months,” Kelly said. “It’d been even more magnified if we all stunk in the ‘pen. I was probably the weakest link, so we were able to play good baseball outside of that. It looks like over there they all kind of hit there little slump at the same time.”
And though Kelly still has plenty of friends in the Red Sox ‘pen, he returned to the idea that some his favorite moments came in his neighborhood. He’ll actually be taking a bit of it back with him when he returns to Los Angeles.
“This is the only city (my son) knew growing up. He met a lot of the local kids. They took care of him,” Kelly said. “One of my neighbors, who is kind of like a godson to me, is actually going to fly back to California after this series. We’re going to have him for two weeks.”
Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Eagle-Tribune and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason