Tyler White has turned into more than a home run shark for the Houston Astros. He's a difference maker. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Tyler White is more than making the most of his second chance with the Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Tony Kemp is making the most of his openings for the Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Jose Altuve always enjoys the moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
George Springer doesn't hide his frustration. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
The Oakland A's are enjoying something of an unexpected dream season. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
George Springer goes all out for every ball in the outfield. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Alex Bregman relishes the biggest moments. (Photo by F. Carter Smith).
Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa always stay calm in the middle of any Astros storm. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
George Springer takes a moment during the season. For all their record setting ways, the Astros offense struggled at times. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Jose Altuve leads the Astros in almost everything he does. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Charlie Morton and catcher Martin Maldonado take a moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
Alex Bregman is one of the hottest hitters in baseball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith.)
The ice bucket dump comes from Tony Kemp. It has to be Kemp who goes after a giddy Tyler White in the middle of his post walk-off home run TV interview. It has to be Kemp who soaks White’s beard with ice chilly goodness.
On a wild Wednesday at Minute Maid, a day that sees the defending World Series champions answer a ridiculous boast from an Oakland A’s pitcher with White’s record-setting walk-off, a day that ends with Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch getting a contract extension, the bond between two battlers is the real feel-good story.
Tony Kemp gets to dump the ice because he is the one who was there when White was “in the dumps.”
Kemp and White found themselves both optioned to Triple A on the same day in spring training.
“We were playing in Fort Myers against the Red Sox,” Kemp tells PaperCity after Astros 5, A’s 4, after White goes hero in the bottom of the ninth. “And on that ride back, he was pretty down in the dumps.”
With the hurt and disappointment still settling in, Kemp challenged his friend to a duel.
“I told him that the only way we’re going to get something out of this year is if we compete with each other,” Kemp says. “I thought we were pretty comparable hitting wise. I told him, ‘Look, I’ll be happy for you if you get a hit, but I want two hits. And if you get two hits, I want three hits.
‘I’ll always be rooting for you, but I think a healthy competition is the best way we can compete with each other and not get lackadaisical in Triple A.’ ”
Kemp and White never let each other wallow in minor league misery. Instead, they never stopped pushing each other — and now they’re making a difference in a real live pennant race. They’re doing big things in The Show while much more highly-publicized prospect Kyle Tucker — who still has Major League star written all over him — is relegated to a near future of tearing it up in the minor league playoffs.
When the A’s new ace Mike Fiers got on the MLB Network’s High Heat with Chris Russo on Wednesday morning and declared Oakland the best team in the American League West, he didn’t just annoy the champs who heard it. He completely misread these Astros.
Houston does not just possess one of the most talented rosters in all of baseball. It also brings the type of relentless heart that these underdog A’s became national darlings for having. You can thank scrappers like White and Kemp for that.
You can also thank White for that now much more comfortable two and a half game lead in the division, for a gut punch right between Oakland’s elephant eyes in the teams’ last meeting of the season (unless something crazy forces an eventual playoff showdown).
“It takes more than 25 guys to complete a season,” Kemp says.
Both White and Kemp know what it’s like to feel like the 26th or 27th man on a roster, to be the guys stuck on the outside, looking longingly back at the Major Leagues.
But on this day, Kemp needs to raise his voice to be heard over the booming music pumping in the Astros’ plush clubhouse after the walk-off mania. Yes, there is even still some fog in the air when reporters are let into the room.
A win like this — and a decided 12-7 season series advantage for the Astros over the A’s (Fiers must look at these numbers like Donald Trump looks at global warming data) — calls for an old school Club Astros dance party.
“What a great group of guys to be part of,” White says, beaming after the first walk-off home run of his life triggered a bubble gum shower, multiple sports drink dousings and of course, with these 2018 Astros, an epic home plate team stare.
This is what it’s truly about. Sure, the private jet travel of the Major Leagues is nice (even if the per diem is no longer legendary). And life in the Big Leagues comes with plenty of perks. But it’s the moments that guys like Tyler White reach for.
Coming Back From Minor League Hell
There is a reason that baseball players like Kemp refer to the minor leagues as being “down there.” It often feels like Hell. Especially when you think you’ve already proven you’re a worthy Big League hitter like White.
Guys who yo-yo back and forth between Triple A and the Majors as often as the 27-year-old White already has frequently lose their way. And their fight.
Which is why the already record-breaking 81st walk-off home run of this MLB season so delights the teammates of the man with the now ever-growing beard from Mooresboro, North Carolina.
“Determination,” George Springer, a World Series MVP and early anointed one, quickly shoots back when I ask what it takes for someone like White to persevere through the setbacks. “A lot of hard work. Just kind of believing in himself.
“Our team believes in (White). He’s a great player. He deserves to be up here. Unfortunately for him, he’s got some guys that are pretty good in front of him. He deserves to be here. And I’m glad he is.”
A New Great White?
White’s more than surviving now. He’s the hitter with the fourth-best OPS in baseball since the All-Star break. The man of the many Great White shark memes. His bottom of the ninth walk-off comes on a 0-2 pitch against Jeurys Familia, one the nastiest relievers in baseball. It’s the first walk-off blast Oakland has surrendered all season (Fiers must want to deny this stat, too).
But it all started with that competition between Kemp and White, with two baseball buddies who wouldn’t let each other quit.
“When I got called up in May, he congratulated me and sent me a text and said, ‘All right, now I’ve got to compete with you while you’re up there and I’m down here,’ ” Kemp says. “We kept that healthy competition going on between each other.”
So now… Tony Kemp needs to hit a walk-off in tonight’s game against the Angels to keep up with White, right?
Kemp laughs. “I think, uh, we’re still competing a little bit,” he says. “But I think for right now, I’ll let him have his fun.”
Kemp looks back across the clubhouse at White, who’s pulling on a white baseball cap (backwards of course) for one of the first mass interviews of his career.
More than anyone, Kemp knows this new Great White earned this moment. All these Astros have.
Sorry Fiers. The heart doesn’t lie any more than the numbers.