By Thomas Corhern - Cookeville Herald-Citizen
COOKEVILLE — It’s not uncommon for a player in any
sport to be able to play two different positions.
That happens quite a bit.
No, the toughest thing for a player who plays two different positions is to play both of them well.
For the Tennessee Tech baseball team, the Golden Eagles has had a certifiable double threat for the past two seasons in sophomore first baseman/pitcher A.J. Kirby-Jones.
Through the 2009 season, it was well known that opposing pitchers were afraid to see him come up to the plate, but the batters didn’t want to see him on the hill either.
That two-position dexterity is one of the biggest reasons Kirby-Jones has been named the University’s 2009 Outstanding Male Athlete of the Year.
“It’s a great honor,” Kirby-Jones said. “It takes a lot of time and hard work. But it’s just an honor because of all the great athletes that I was up against. They all deserved this award as well.”
Kirby-Jones joins past baseball winners Mark Maberry in 1997 and Casey Benjamin in 2003.
The baseball standout beat out teammates Lee Henry and Chad Oberacker for the award as well as freshman Tim Benford (football), junior Frank Davis (basketball), senior Daniel Northern (basketball), sophomore Dean O’Brien (tennis), senior Greyson Painter (golf), sophomore Henry Sailes (football) and senior Maurice Smith (football).
“I seem to say the same thing about A.J. every time someone asks,” said Golden Eagles baseball coach Matt Bragga, “but A.J. is just a class act as a person. He is just a great young man that has been a pleasure to have on this team. From that standpoint and from the baseball standpoint, A.J. is one of the most special players I have ever coached in 13 years of coaching. The committee couldn’t have named anyone better for this award. The best way to put it is that he’s a great baseball player, but an even better person.”
And it’s Kirby-Jones’ blue-collar approach to the game that impresses Bragga the most.
“The great thing about A.J. is he just comes to the park and does what he does — and that’s play great baseball,” Bragga said. “He does it daily because he’s able to keep a very level head. He’s one of those young men that when things are going well, you can’t tell. When things are going bad, you can’t tell. He just keeps that same demeanor all the time.
“Now, don’t get me wrong — that doesn’t mean he’s not one of the best competitors that I’ve ever coached. He wants to win. He wants to be the best that he can possibly be. He wants our team to win championships, but it’s the mentality that you look for — that level-headedness that is special.
At the plate, Kirby-Jones proved to be one of the Golden Eagles’ most natural hitters, leading the team in home runs (20) and runs batted in (60) with a .325 batting average.
“He’s probably got the most power that I’ve ever coached,” Bragga said.
From his post at first base, Kirby-Jones had 206 putouts, 12 assists and four errors for a .982 fielding percentage. And on the mound, Kirby-Jones recorded a 3-3 record with a 5.51 earned run average, striking out 52 batters in 49 innings of work while opponents hit .247 against him.
To be able to play from both of those positions, it requires a lot of skill on Kirby-Jones’ part.
“Absolutely,” Bragga said. “That is not easy. With A.J., you see the skill level of having the power bat then a power arm off the mound. Taking it a step further, you look at the competitive side of A.J. and that’s what makes him special at both.”
Kirby-Jones added, “It’s tough to do both. My team gives me a job and I try to go out there and do the best for them. Honestly I couldn’t be where I am today without them. They helped me this year get me to where I needed to be. They were on base for the RBIs. They gave me the opportunity to win this award.”
As the season started, the Golden Eagles struggled a little bit opening conference play, hindered as injuries started to ravage the Tech lineup.
But the team was able to rally and work their way to the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, then winning the postseason event in Paducah, Ky.
“We started a little shaky in the conference,” Kirby-Jones said. “With all of the injuries and everything, I’d say we got down a little bit. But we had to overcome losing our top two pitchers. We had to overcome some adversity and it just shows the character of this team. It was just great to see us come together and do what we did.”
At the OVC Tournament, the Golden Eagles proved they rightfully were one of the top teams in the league.
“We came together and played Tennessee Tech baseball,” Kirby-Jones said. “Everybody knew what we needed to do and came through when they had to. We all played our role and got the big hits. It just showed how tough our team really was.”
The trip to Clemson for the NCAA Regionals was awe-inspiring for the Knoxville-Webb product.
“That was amazing,” Kirby-Jones said. “Five thousand fans at each game, it was just a great atmosphere. It showed that not only can we hang in the OVC, we can battle with the big dogs.”
Even at the NCAA Regionals at Clemson, as Kirby-Jones was fighting off a shoulder injury of his own with bicep tendonitis, he continued to fight through it and battle at the plate. His numbers at the tournament may not have been indicative of his season, but his competitive nature helped to drive the Golden Eagles to their success in the regional tournament, including eliminating No. 14 Alabama.
“Those were probably the toughest losses I’ve ever had in my sports career,” Kirby-Jones said of Tech’s two losses to regional host Clemson. “It was tough knowing that I wasn’t going to be able to go out on the mound and give them my best.”
Bragga added, “He really tried to do everything he could for this team that weekend. That may have been the first time all season that I saw him hit his helmet with his hand as he was putting his helmet up. A.J. wanted to win those games as bad as anyone we’ve got. He wasn’t able to do what he normally did for us, but it wasn’t because the effort wasn’t there. It was. A.J’s A.J. He’s a great guy, a great baseball player and a player I can’t wait to see back on the field next year.”
Having finished his sophomore season with the Golden Eagles, Kirby-Jones has set up the groundwork for two more great seasons ahead of him with TTU baseball.
“I’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Kirby-Jones said. “We’ve still got more championships to try to win.”
Bragga added, “That’s exciting just knowing he’s going to be back with us. Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What year is he? Junior? Senior?’ I said, ‘No, he’s a sophomore.’ It’s funny because I’ve coached against young men at Tennessee Tech, at Birmingham-Southern, even at my junior college at Bevill State, and it feels like he’s been here for five years already and he’s only a sophomore. I think he really is that kind of special player. I’m sure the other coaches are like, ‘When is that guy going to get out of there?’ because he really is that good.”