BOSTON -- Like so many other teenagers playing summer ball, Mookie Betts and Tony Kemp dreamed of one day wearing a Major League uniform.The two Nashville-area kids filled the top two spots in the lineup for the Yankees, a local summer travel team made up of some of the top
BOSTON -- Like so many other teenagers playing summer ball, Mookie Betts and Tony Kemp dreamed of one day wearing a Major League uniform.
The two Nashville-area kids filled the top two spots in the lineup for the Yankees, a local summer travel team made up of some of the top talents in the region. Kemp played in the outfield and hit leadoff, while Betts batted second and played shortstop.
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The No. 3 hitter? None other than D-backs left-hander Robbie Ray. Go figure.
"Robbie Ray was the best hitter on our team," Kemp said. "In a doubleheader, if we played at 6 and 8 at night, Robbie would pitch the first game and play first base or DH the second game -- and probably have two or three home runs."
If Ray tunes in to the American League Championship Series, he'll see his former teammates on opposite sides of the field vying for a trip to the World Series.
For Kemp and Betts, sharing this big stage only a handful of years after sharing a summer dugout is a bit surreal.
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"Mookie is a good dude; I've been playing with him since I was 15, 16 years old," Kemp said. "He's always been an athlete; always one of the best players on the team. Being able to text him about this series and what it means; we're obviously friends off the field, but once we get on the field, it will be no more friends."
The two engaged in a brief Twitter back-and-forth last week once the Red Sox-Astros ALCS matchup was set. The morning after Boston's Game 4 win in the AL Division Series over the Yankees in the Bronx, Betts tweeted "#DoDamage" with a Red Sox logo; two hours later, Kemp retweeted Betts' post with his own retort: "#NeverSettle" with an Astros logo.
Just a couple of old pals having a little fun with each other.
"We texted the other day and just wished each other good luck," Betts said. "It's just one of those things where he's like a brother. We grew up and played against each other, and with each other, in the summer. It's just one of those things where you just hope for the best for somebody that you kind of grew up playing with."
Kemp, who is a year older than Betts, played at Centennial High School in Franklin, Tenn., about 15 minutes south of John Overton High School in Nashville, where Betts played.
"We scouted him a little bit before he came to the Nashville Yankees," Kemp said with a smile. "Being able to play against him, then to have him on my team, you see why he's a stellar athlete."
That might be an understatement. Betts' season has garnered him frontrunner status in the AL MVP Award race, and while Kemp's numbers don't approach those of his one-time teammate, the 26-year-old forced his way into the Astros' outfield rotation and proved himself to be a viable threat.
"I'm just proud to say there's another guy that I grew up with that's playing in the playoffs with me now," Betts said.
When Betts was being recruited by colleges, Kemp's Vanderbilt team was among those trying to land the talented player. Betts signed a letter of commitment to attend the University of Tennessee, though he turned pro after being selected by the Red Sox in the fifth round of the 2011 MLB Draft.
"The funny thing was that when he was going to be committing to college, he thought I was going to be blocking him playing at Vanderbilt -- which probably was not going to be the case," Kemp said. "He would have found his way on the field one way or another."
The two players have worked out together in the offseason, maintaining a friendship that began nearly a decade ago. Kemp, who was selected in the fifth round by the Astros in 2013, has paid close attention to Betts' ability to make adjustments on the field, many of which have helped propel him into the upper echelon of big league players over the past three seasons.
"What he's done this year, seeing the type of player he's blossomed to be, I'm very excited for him and the career that he's had," Kemp said. "Being able to work out with him in the offseasons and see the adjustments he makes on the field, you can see why he's one of the best in the league right now."
Not that Kemp is remotely surprised. Thinking back to their days on the Nashville Yankees, Kemp recalls a player who stood out even at a young age.
"When a guy plays baseball like that with a certain energy, a level of play, you can tell he's going to be special," Kemp said. "He was actually playing up for his age; we were a couple years older than him and he was one of the best players on the team.
"When you're in high school, you think the big leagues is just a figment of your imagination. Once you're in this atmosphere, you can punch yourself and think, 'I'm really here doing this.' It's really special to see a guy that you've grown up with doing the things he's doing. I'm really happy for him."
Kemp and Betts text each other a couple times per week during the offseason, and while they don't communicate often during the season, they'll hit each other up from time to time to offer congratulations or encouragement.
"If we see each other on the highlights, we'll text each other, 'Nice catch' or 'Good play out there,'" Kemp said. "It's cool to have that bond with somebody that you've known for seven or eight years."
If they run into each other before Saturday's Game 1, what will Kemp's message be to his old friend?
"I'd tell him, 'Good luck,'" Kemp said. "But not too much good luck."
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com.