A Wauke­sha teenager just might be Wis­con­sin’s best base­ball prospect in 50-plus years.

Milwaukee Magazine - - DEPARTMENTS - By RICH ROVITO

Meet the teen from Wauke­sha West who just be­came Wis­con­sin’s best-ever hard­ball prospect.

On a cloudy early June af­ter­noon, Jarred Ke­lenic dons a royal blue cap and gown, ready to be­come a Wauke­sha West High School grad­u­ate. Like many 18-year-olds, he’s about to em­bark on a new ca­reer, but his is unique among his class­mates: Five days ear­lier, the New York Mets drafted him in the high­est po­si­tion ever for some­one from Wis­con­sin.

“It’s pretty sur­real to wake up and re­al­ize that now I’m a pro­fes­sional base­ball player, but this is what I’ve worked for,” Ke­lenic says at his fam­ily’s Town of Wauke­sha home, where a small Mets flag of blue, orange and white is planted in the front yard. In a few hours, he will make the trip to New York City for a phys­i­cal exam by the team’s doc­tors.

Sev­eral days ear­lier, fam­ily and friends gath­ered at the home to watch the draft on TV. When the Mets make Wis­con­sin base­ball his­tory by tak­ing Ke­lenic with

the sixth over­all pick – the first high school player se­lected – he buries his face in his hands and weeps, over­whelmed by the mo­ment.

Ke­lenic, who had com­mit­ted to play base­ball for the Univer­sity of Louisville be­fore the Mets came call­ing, re­ceived a $4.5 mil­lion sign­ing bonus. His ini­tial as­sign­ment is with the rookie-level Gulf Coast Mets in Port St. Lu­cie, Florida.

A smooth-swing­ing, left-handed out­fielder who has had pro scouts drool­ing with his pol­ished skills, Ke­lenic stands 6-foot-1 with 195 pounds of lean mus­cle carved by vig­or­ous daily pre-dawn work­outs.

Ke­lenic never played high school base­ball – with no re­grets, he in­sists. In­stead, he earned a spot on Team USA’s un­der-18 squad, com­pet­ing against many of the coun­try’s top play­ers. “It truly tests you men­tally and phys­i­cally, play­ing ev­ery sin­gle day, like a pro­fes­sional,” Ke­lenic says. Al­though most of the games are played dur­ing sum­mer break, some are dur­ing the school year, so Ke­lenic had the added chal­lenge of do­ing home­work on the road and scram­bling to catch up in the class­room when he re­turned.

The sup­port from Ke­lenic’s par­ents, Lisa and Tom, has gone be­yond the usual en­cour­age­ment into ac­tual in­vest­ment. Tom Ke­lenic has de­vel­oped sev­eral local sports fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing the eight di­a­monds of In­fin­ity Fields youth base­ball and softball com­plex in the Town of Wauke­sha – al­though it was not Jarred but his big sis­ter, softball player Tay­lor, who was their fa­ther’s mo­ti­va­tion for the project. Tom Ke­lenic grew weary of hav­ing to drive Tay­lor 30 miles or more to play so-called home games, some­times against other Wauke­sha-area teams, be­cause of a lack of fields with lights.

He also de­vel­oped the neigh­bor­ing NX Level high-per­for­mance train­ing cen­ter, which lists Pe­wau­kee na­tive and Hous­ton Tex­ans star J.J. Watt among its clients. And Ke­lenic’s nearby Stiks Academy and Sports Train­ing fea­tures an in­door base­ball field and bat­ting cages that pro­vided his son with a place to prac­tice dur­ing the harsh win­ters and rainy springs that have long held back de­vel­op­ment of Wis­con­sin’s base­ball tal­ent.

Joe Randa, who starred at Ket­tle Mo­raine High School and played 12 sea­sons in the ma­jors, first saw Ke­lenic’s tal­ents about six years ago at In­fin­ity Fields, where Randa was coach­ing his own youth team in a tour­na­ment. “Jarred re­ally is the to­tal pack­age,” says Randa, a spe­cial as­sis­tant for base­ball op­er­a­tions with the Kansas City Roy­als. “He can be very hum­ble but he does have some cock­i­ness, too. He wants to be the best, ev­ery sin­gle day.”

Randa, who played against Tom Ke­lenic in high school, has bonded with the bud­ding young star. “He’s helped me out a lot,” Jarred says, “espe­cially with the men­tal side of the game, teach­ing me how to re­lax be­cause I’m such an up­tight guy.”

Even with top-notch phys­i­cal skills, deal­ing with the men­tal as­pects of pro­fes­sional base­ball can of­ten be the big­gest chal­lenge, Randa warns. “There hasn’t been a lot of fail­ure for Jarred, and fail­ure is a big part of base­ball,” he says. “How he adapts will go a long way in de­ter­min­ing if he makes it to the ma­jors.”

Ke­lenic must also learn to deal with the no­to­ri­ously opinionated New York sports fans, who im­me­di­ately af­ter the draft turned to so­cial me­dia to ex­press their feel­ings about Ke­lenic’s se­lec­tion.

“I get a kick out of it,” Ke­lenic says. “Even some­times when they hate on me.”

Ke­lenic’s par­ents, Tom and Lisa, have worked to en­cour­age and pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for their chil­dren’s tal­ents – in­clud­ing Tom’s de­vel­op­ment of sev­eral sports and train­ing fa­cil­i­ties. “But the drive and pas­sion that Jarred has, you can’t teach that,” Lisa says.

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