R.I.P. to Kelly Paris, a utility infielder who played with four different teams in the early 1980s. His brother, Bret Paris, wrote on Facebook that Kelly had died from cancer on May 27. He was 61 years old. Paris played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1982), Cincinnati Reds (1983), Baltimore Orioles (1985-86) and Chicago White Sox (1988). He overcame unbelievable amounts of adversity to have that major-league career, too.
“As always, he fought to the end. Kelly didn’t lose his fight with cancer, he just ran out of innings,” his brother wrote.
Kelly Paris was born on October 17, 1957 in Encino, Calif. Baseball ran in the family. His father Jay played until an injury sustained in the Korean War ended his baseball career. Brother Bret spent two years in the Giants and Cardinals organization. The brothers were teammates on the 1976 Johnson City Cardinals, and hit home runs in the same inning to win the championship game that year, Kelly recalled in a 1979 interview.
“I always knew I would sign because scouts were always talking to me,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. But they never talked to my brother. Well, he and I had both dreamed of playing baseball since we were little. So when Bret finally did sign, it was my biggest thrill and is to this day.”
Paris played football, baseball and basketball for the Taft High School Toreadors. He took over the shortstop position after their previous shortstop, Robin Yount, was drafted into pro ball. Paris turned down full scholarships for football and baseball at the University of Southern California to enter professional baseball. He was drafted by the Cardinals as a shortstop in the 2nd Round of the 1975 Amateur Draft. St. Louis assigned him to their Gulf Coast league, and he hit .236 in 34 games. Paris played in Rookie or A-ball until 1979, when he hit .284 with 25 stolen bases for St. Petersburg of the Florida State League. That earned him a promotion to AA Arkansas in 1980, and he responded with a .301 average, 28 doubles and 17 stolen bases.
Part of the reason that Paris spent so much time in the low minors may have been due to his eyes. He tried to wear contacts in high school to no avail, and he finally added glasses in early May, 1979. He proceeded to bat .414 in the weeks following that decision.
“I was a little afraid that they’d bother me with the glare and looking out the side. But I feel a lot more comfortable now with them on,” he said.
After that good season with Arkansas, Paris was finally given his promotion to AAA Louisville, and he hit .328 with 11 home runs, 83 RBIs and 20 stolen bases. The natural shortstop had become adept at the other infield positions — a good thing, since the Cardinals had Ozzie Smith at shortstop.
While at Louisville, Paris befriended Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese and worked on fine-tuning the mental aspects of the game. He was likened to fiery shortstops Leo Durocher and Al Dark in a 1982 profile. He acknowledged his aggressiveness at the plate and in the field and was working to improve his patience.
“I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’ve got pretty good range, but I get to the ball and hurry the throw and throw it away,” he told Louisville Courier-Journal editor Billy Reed. “I’ve got to take my time and take advantage of my good arm.”
Patience was something that Paris must have had in great supply. His athletic career was marked by multiple severe injuries, any of which could have ended his career. He had two knee surgeries in high school from playing football, and it took Dr. Frank Jobe to move tendons from the back of his knee to across the front. He injured his arm in 1976 and had to spend three years at first base while it healed. He broke his ankle in 1981 in Oklahoma City while sliding into catcher Ozzie Virgil’s shin guard. He spent five months rehabbing that injury.
“The Lord wanted to see what I was made of, see how much I can take,” he said in 1983 in the Dayton Daily News. “I would not let it get me down and I benefited from the adversity.”
Paris’ excellent performance earned him a call-up to the majors at the end of 1982. In 12 games, he managed 3 hits in 29 at-bats with an RBI. His first MLB at-bat resulted in a single off the Dodgers’ Ricky Wright in the top of the 13th inning on September 1, 1982. He scored the winning run on an Ozzie Smith single.
Paris was traded to the Reds in a minor-league deal in the offseason and spent most of 1983 with the Reds. He played in 56 games and slashed .250/.336/.300. He stole 8 bases and walked 15 times against 22 strikeouts. Despite his good play, he was used pretty infrequently, which was a frustrating experience. The Reds even made him cut his longish blond hair and shave his mustache due to a stupid facial hair ban.
Paris signed as a minor-league free agent with the Pirates and spent all of 1984 playing in their AAA team in Hawaii. He signed with the Orioles for the 1985 season and had two brief call-ups with the team in 1985 and 1986. He was hitless in 9 at-bats in 1985 and hit .200 over 10 at-bats in ’86, while still putting up solid numbers in AAA. He even hit a career-high 18 home runs for Rochester in 1985.
In December 1986, Paris lost control of his Corvette while driving home to Gastonia, N.C. The car rolled down a ravine and slammed into an oak tree. Paris suffered a broken back, ribs, sternum and wrist. He also suffered lacerations around his left eye that necessitated a 4-and-a-half-hour plastic surgery. Paris had been drinking and struggled with alcoholism for years. He worked on his sobriety in 1987 while rehabbing from his injuries. He also worked at a dental lab, making dentures for $4.25 an hour.
Paris turned to the White Sox in the 1988 season, asking for a chance to play again. Though he was 30 years old and a year removed from baseball, the Sox worked him out in Spring Training and sent him to AAA Vancouver. He hit .284 there, and when Ivan Calderon was injured, Paris returned to the majors.
Paris hit .250 in 14 games with the White Sox, and he hit the only three home runs of his MLB career in a week’s span. The first came off of Angels ace Chuck Finley, and the other two came in the same game against the Mariners’ Mark Langston. For a 90-loss team, Paris’ performance was a bright spot.
“Basically, it’s a phoenix story. Kelly Paris came right out of the ashes to rise up and come back,” said White Sox scout Craig Wallenbrock.
“Baseball is not my entire life anymore,” Paris said. “After the accident, I quit drinking. I was sober yesterday. I’m sober today and I plan to be sober tomorrow. Your priorities change immensely when you’re that close to death.”
An arm injury brought Paris’ 1988 season to an early end, and he never did make it back to the majors. He played in pro ball in the U.S. through 1989 and played with the Mexico City Reds in 1990 before retiring.
In parts of five MLB seasons, Paris slashed .217/.270/.288. He had 46 hits, including 6 doubles and 3 homers. He knocked in 14 runs and scored 20 times, and he also stole 8 bases in 11 attempts. Paris played at least 11 games at every infield position, with the bulk of his time coming at third base. He also hit .270 in 14 seasons in the minor leagues, with 170 stolen bases and 90 home runs.
After his playing career, Paris became a baseball instructor and worked with many young players. Judging by the tributes being posted about him from his former students and the parents of his students, he’s left a powerful legacy.