From cleaning up popcorn to pitching in big leagues

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

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

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

That dream seemed impossibly far away several years earlier. 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 redshirting. After putting up solid numbers at Mendocino (a 3-7 record and 4.60 ERA in 60.2 innings), Kerr quit the game. He returned to Reno, thinking baseball was in his past. His immediate future included working at a movie theater and 7-Eleven.

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

That’s when Eric Perry came along. Perry was a friend of a friend. Kerr hadn’t spoken to him in a number of years, but Perry landed the coaching job at Lassen Community College. He prodded the lanky lefty to return to baseball after a couple of years away. Given the choice of 7-Eleven or a pitcher’s 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 have baseball left 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 that and posted a 7-4 record and 3.45 ERA over 91 innings in 2017, marking his first season playing ball since 2014. The 6-foot-2, 185-pounder’s career was back on track, but one day playing in the major leagues was still outlandish. After all, he was playing junior-college ball in a town of less than 20,000 citizens.

After his season in Lassen, Kerr was invited to play in the Alaskan League, which he initially took as a joke. Kerr didn’t know such a league existed let alone on that could mark 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 all snow up there. I didn’t really know that state very well. But I went up there and played and did really well.”

In Alaska, Kerr, a two-way player in junior college, mostly focused on pitching. He untapped more of his potential, posting a 4-2 record and 1.11 ERA over 48 innings, doing so against the best competition he had faced to that point in his life. That’s when he realized his talent might be greater than he imagined.

“I’m going against DI, D-II players and I’m just this kid from junior college and I was carving them,” Kerr said. “I was like, ‘Dang, I’m actually pretty good. Maybe I can further this.’ Everybody’s telling me I’m good, so I’ve just got to believe it. It’s hard to believe you’re that good until you start facing the best of the best. That’s when it gets fun.”

Following his stint in Alaska, Kerr was set to join Cumberland University, an NAIA school in Lebanon, Tenn. Before he got there, his Reno-based coach, Matt Konopisos, the long-time owner of the Reno Aces, surprised him. Two major-league teams — the Seattle Mariners and Miami Marlins — were flying to Reno to see Kerr throw a bullpen session. The outing was held at Galena High, and Kerr was impressive enough for the Mariners to sign him as an undrafted free agent having never played above the junior-college level.

Kerr made his pro debut at age 22 in the 2017 Arizona League before joining the Mariners’ minor-leagues in 2018. Playing for the Class-A Clinton LumberKings — a franchise no longer affiliated with a big-league team — Kerr finally began to realize his talent could stack up against the world’s best. As his velocity climbed into the mid-90s, Kerr’s confidence shot up as well.

“My velo kept going up and I didn’t even know my limit yet, where my ceiling was,” Kerr said. “I just kept listening to trainers and all these smarter people than me and just picking brains and learning about myself through other people. From there, I was, like, ‘Damn, how hard can I throw?’ I thought I could only throw maximum 92. That was like my whole career, and all of a sudden my velo 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 40-man roster, a requirement to get called up to the big 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 road trip in 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 up the night before. And then Sandberg calls me. I was eating at a place called Lucky Penny, and the conversation furthered on, and he was like, ‘Well, I hope there’s a Lucky Penny in San Diego.'” I was, like, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He was, like, ‘You got moved up.’ I was, like, ‘Hell, yeah, dude! Are you serious? This is what I’ve been dreaming about.’ It’s still baseball, but it’s literally ‘The Show.'”

Upon hearing the news, Kerr immediately called his foster mom, Lisa McCarthy, and then his brother. So many people contributed to Kerr getting to the big leagues, more than he can count, many of whom believed in his potential when he didn’t. Ranking high on that list was McCarthy.

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

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

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

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

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