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Kevin Kiermaier on Rays career: ‘I hope I gave people something to cheer for’

The veteran centerfielder reflects on his cherished time in Tampa Bay as he heads to free agency.
Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier collides with the outfield wall after catching a fly ball by the Orioles' Manny Machado during a 2015 game in Baltimore.
Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier collides with the outfield wall after catching a fly ball by the Orioles' Manny Machado during a 2015 game in Baltimore. [ PATRICK SEMANSKY | AP ]
Published Nov. 15

ST. PETERSBURG — Kevin Kiermaier doesn’t have a sense yet where he is headed next, waiting to see which teams are interested in him as a free agent.

But the centerfielder knows after a 12-year run with the Rays that he can’t say enough good things about, he has to move on.

And there is a lot to pack away.

The most memorable items — a dozen or so variations of Rays jerseys, shadowboxes commemorating significant moments and milestones, the three Gold Glove and one Platinum Glove awards he won — eventually will have a special place.

“I’m not a big memorabilia guy, not huge into that,” he said, “but I’ll get a nice little man cave for certain things.”

But every-day life — for him, his wife and the two young sons running around their Tampa home — will require some reorganizing as well.

“My closet is flooded with a bunch of Rays athletic gear and stuff like that, so I feel like now that it’s official
I’ve got to wean off of those or give them to the in-laws or do whatever,” said Kiermaier, 32.

“This place will always have a special place in my heart. So I’m not getting rid of it. Just anything Rays-related, I can circle back to it later on in life. But for the time being, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to go see what else is out there. And see what this next chapter brings.”

The memories are a little harder to push aside:

• Making his way from a 31st-round draft pick in 2010 — the 941st player chosen, as he likes to point out — to the majors.

• An unprecedented debut in Game 163 of the 2013 season.

• The big wins as part of five teams that reached the postseason.

• His emergence as a team leader, heading up the clubhouse celebrations.

• And the litany of highlights — a few huge hits, some amazing throws and a long list of running, leaping, diving, sliding and otherwise awe-inspiring catches.

Most iconic was Kiermaier’s leaping grab in Baltimore in 2015 to deny Manny Machado a home run. The catch has been indelibly preserved in several ways, including in a painting ex-Rays pitcher Chris Archer (who was on the mound) had made and in a large photo that hangs in the visiting clubhouse food room at Camden Yards.

Kiermaier in a 2021 Bally Sports Sun interview said the hardest and best play he ever made was a home run theft in a 2019 game in San Diego. He ran full speed and leapt into the wall — hitting his head so hard he underwent concussion testing — to snare a ball hit by future teammate Francisco Mejia.

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Others have their own favorites, such as the relay throw in the 2019 playoffs against Houston to shortstop Willy Adames, who then nailed Jose Altuve at home.

Kiermaier never shied from talking about himself and his skills, acknowledging his offensive shortcomings and the frustrating time he lost to injury. He openly shared and sometimes rambled on about why he thought he was the best defensive outfielder in the game.

Last week, he somewhat surprisingly said that his ultimate highlight as a Ray was actually one he watched: when then-teammate Mike Brosseau hit the revenge homer off Aroldis Chapman to beat the Yankees in the decisive game of the 2020 pandemic-impacted division series in San Diego.

“I’ve had so many great moments over the years, but that was the best, the most amazing moment ever,” Kiermaier said. “I’ve never been more pumped up about anything in my whole life. It’s fun to look back. But it’s gonna be hard for something to top that with all that was leading up to that point. And for us to have that moment, it was absolutely incredible.”

When the Rays formally declined his option last Thursday, all but assuring he is headed elsewhere, Kiermaier drove home from his rehab session (he is recovering from August left hip surgery) with other memories flooding his head, feeling he lived up to his six-year, $53.5 million contract and gave everything he had.

“I surprised myself many, many times along the way,” he said. “I’m really proud of being a team leader, especially ever since (third baseman Evan Longoria was traded in December 2017). I feel like I really had a consistent demeanor each and every day. I’m very proud of that.”

Kiermaier’s most prized achievement clearly was winning Gold and Platinum Gloves in 2015, his first full season in the majors.

“That gave me a level of confidence that I never had before,” he said. “It just transitioned to other parts of my game and off the field. And it just it elevated my life, like, in so many ways, which is kind of weird to say. But that was a defining moment for me.

“And everyone, all fans of the Rays, know that that was my game — very league-average hitter but special out there defensively. I hope I gave people something to cheer for over the years out there. I think I made a lot of nice catches and throws.”

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