From cleaning popcorn to pitching in the major leagues

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Last month, Hug High alum Ray Kerr stood atop a baseball mound at a major league ballpark.

A sold-out crowd of 44,930 fans at Petco Park roared as Kerr took down three consecutive All-Stars – Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Chris Taylor – in his big league debut.

“It’s hard to put that into words,” Kerr told the NSN Daily on Tuesday. “It was just, like, ‘I’m here. I’m in the big leagues. I’ve dreamed about it.'”

This dream seemed incredibly distant many years ago. After graduating in 2013 from Hug, a school not known for its baseball prowess, Kerr spent two seasons at Mendocino College in Ukiah, Calif., one as an active player and the other in a red shirt. After posting solid numbers in Mendocino (a 3-7 record and a 4.60 ERA in 60.2 innings), Kerr left the game. He returned to Reno, thinking baseball was a thing of his past. His immediate future included working at a movie theater and 7-Eleven.

“I went home and worked in the Legends IMAX theaters,” Kerr said. “I cleaned a lot of popcorn. I said, ‘I’m done cleaning the popcorn.’ People leave stuff everywhere. So I worked at 7-Eleven. I just stocked the shelves in the cold fridge, listening to my music, kinda forgetting about baseball. I thought I was gonna do this for the rest of my life, just picking up popcorn. But I was still missing that real part of my life being on the mound.

That’s when Eric Perry arrived. Perry was a friend of a friend. Kerr hadn’t spoken to him in several years, but Perry landed the coaching job at Lassen Community College. He pushed the lanky southpaw to return to baseball after a few years away. Given the choice of 7-Eleven or a pitching mound, Kerr moved to Susanville to play for the Cougars.

“He came out of nowhere and said, ‘Let’s go back to school. Let’s go to Lassen Community College. I still think you still have some baseball in you,'” Kerr said of Perry’s pitch. “I was, like, ‘Yeah, me too.'”

Kerr had to get a 3.5 GPA to join the team and play ball. He did so and posted a 7-4 and 3.45 ERA record over 91 innings in 2017, marking his first season playing ball since 2014. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound career was back on the right way, but one day playing in the major leagues was still weird. After all, he was playing ball in middle school in a town of less than 20,000 people.

After his season at Lassen, Kerr was invited to play in the Alaska League, which he initially took as a joke. Kerr had no idea such a league existed let alone who could score one of the big breaks in his career.

“At first, I turned them down because I was, like, ‘Baseball in Alaska?'” Kerr said. “I thought it was just snow up there. I didn’t know that state very well. But I went out there and played and did really well.”

In Alaska, Kerr, a two-way player in junior college, focused primarily on throwing. He tapped into his potential further, posting a 4-2 record and a 1.11 ERA in 48 innings, doing so against the best competition he’s faced so far in his life. It was then that he realized that his talent might be greater than he imagined.

“I’m going to play DI, D-II players and I’m just this kid from college and I was carving them out,” Kerr said. “I was like, ‘Dang, I’m actually pretty good. Maybe I can dig into that.’ Everyone tells me I’m good, so I just have to believe it. It’s hard to believe you’re so good until you start competing against the best of the best. That’s when it gets fun. .

After his stint in Alaska, Kerr was to join Cumberland University, an NAIA school in Lebanon, Tennessee. Before he got there, his Reno-based coach, longtime Reno Aces owner Matt Konopisos, surprised him. Two major league teams — the Seattle Mariners and the Miami Marlins — were flying to Reno to watch Kerr kick off a bullpen session. The outing was at Galena High, and Kerr was impressive enough for the Mariners to sign him as an undrafted free agent who had never played above the junior level.

Kerr made his professional debut at age 22 in the Arizona League in 2017 before joining minor league affiliates the Mariners in 2018. Playing for the Class A Clinton LumberKings – a franchise that is no longer affiliated with a big league team – Kerr finally began to realize that his talent could rival the best in the world. As his speed increased in the mid-90s, Kerr’s confidence also increased.

“My bike kept going uphill and I didn’t even know my limit yet, where my ceiling was,” Kerr said. “I just kept listening to coaches and all these people smarter than me and picking brains and learning about myself through other people. From there I was like, ‘Damn, how far can I cast? I thought I could only throw a maximum of 92. It was like my whole career, and all of a sudden my bike jumps and jumps. I was really excited for that.

Kerr remained in the minor leagues throughout the 2018 and 2019 seasons. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 minor league season, but Kerr remained active in 2021 with the Mariners, who put him on their roster of 40 players, a requirement to be called up to the major leagues, last November. Nine days later, Kerr was traded to the San Diego Padres in exchange for 2021 All-Star Adam Frazier. After six Triple-A games this season, Kerr was on a trip to Las Vegas when he got a call from Jared Sandberg , his manager at Triple-A El Paso.

“I was with my fiancée,” Kerr said. “She came over the night before. And then Sandberg called me. I was eating at a place called Lucky Penny, and the conversation continued, and he was like, ‘Hey Well, I hope there’s a Lucky Penny in San Diego.’ I was, like, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He was, like, ‘You went up.’ I was, like, ‘Damn, yeah, man! Are you serious? This is what I was dreaming about.’ It still doesn’t feel real. It’s still baseball, but it’s literally “The Show.”

Upon hearing the news, Kerr immediately called her adoptive mother, Lisa McCarthy, and then her brother. So many people contributed to Kerr reaching the major leagues, more than he can count, many of whom believed in his potential when he didn’t. McCarthy ranked high on that list.

“She was the one who gave me all these opportunities to go back to college, to pay if I really wanted to,” Kerr said. “She never gave up on my ultimate goal, even though I did at one point. She said to me, ‘If you want to go back, I’ll pay for it.’ We were sitting there talking over dinner and I was like, ‘Dang, do I really want to go back?'”

Kerr did, and the rest is history. After seeing just one major league game as a youngster — a contest between the Giants and the A’s in Oakland when he was 13 — Kerr now calls the major leagues his home. It’s the most unlikely story of a kid from Hug — a school that’s 27-245-1 in baseball since 2008 — hitting hard. When a young Kerr watched that Giants-A game a decade and a half ago, he didn’t even think the players were real. This stadium was too big. The scene too grand. This dream too far-fetched. And now it stands on this ground as a major league player.

“If you have people who can help you through it all, that’s always a plus, even if you don’t think you need help,” said Kerr, who lives in Reno during the offseason. “I’m a little stubborn about it. If you really want it, keep chasing it. You’re going to have a lot of setbacks. Trust me. But you’ll get there someday if you really want to.”

You can watch NSN Daily’s full interview with Ray Kerr below.

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