By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
Shortly before he headed to the Atlanta Braves’ spring training facility in Florida earlier this year, Keenan Wiley had the opportunity to speak with the current members of the Madison Central baseball team.
He had a simple, yet special message for the players.
“(Keenan talked about) pursuing your goals with everything you have — and that stuck with our team the whole season,” Central coach Steve Roof said.
It’s not surprising that Wiley’s words would resonate with those young men. They all know what the former Central standout has been able to accomplish and the obstacles he’s had to overcome.
Despite not being offered a full scholarship, Wiley left the University of Kentucky with his name etched in the school’s record book. Then after not being selected in the Major League Baseball Draft, Wiley has spent the past two seasons working his way up through the Atlanta Braves organization.
“All through my life there’s been a lot of people who said I couldn’t do it,” Wiley said. “But, my numbers everywhere I’ve played have showed that I can play with anybody. That’s what I feel like. Maybe more so than other people, I’ve felt like I had to go out and prove that.”
Wiley has done just that.
After spending just one full season in the minor leagues, the speedy outfielder was assigned to the Class AA Mississippi Braves this spring. Wiley has been a fixture at the top of the team’s batting order all season and even though he was forced out of the lineup because of a concussion, he’s hitting .259 with a .360 on-base percentage.
“I got an opportunity and made the most of it. It worked out for me,” Wiley said. “The Braves gave me an opportunity and I’m thankful for that. They’ve seen something in me they like. They are allowing me to play and get better and keep moving up and that’s all I can ask.”
But, Wiley almost didn’t end up in the Braves organization.
Following an outstanding college career at Kentucky, in which he finished in the school’s all-time Top 10 in six statistical categories, Wiley had some extensive conversations with Atlanta. He was assured that Atlanta would select him in the 2010 MLB Draft.
That didn’t happen.
Still, Wiley remained very optimistic.
He turned down an offer to join the Arizona Diamondbacks organization and a couple of weeks later, Wiley was offered a free agent contract by the Atlanta Braves.
He agreed and was sent to Danville in the Appalachian League.
“I really wanted the Braves to take me because it was the organization I really wanted to play for,” Wiley said. “They are serious about their baseball and they are going to give every guy a chance as long as they produce and that’s the most important thing. Then it’s your job to make the most of it.”
Given the chance, Wiley didn’t disappoint.
In 20 games at Danville, he hit .328 with a .384 on-base percentage and a .772 OPS.
The next spring, the former Central outfielder was assigned to Rome of the South Atlantic League (Class A), but after only 14 games he was sent to Lynchburg of the Carolina League (High Class A).
In 116 games last season, Wiley hit .286, stole 22 bases and had a 114 hits.
“It’s still baseball,” Wiley said. “It’s still the same game. The execution and speed of the game is a little different.”
Wiley spent some time at the Braves’ major league camp this spring. He dressed for seven games and was even used as a late-inning defensive replacement on a couple of occasions, although he did not get the chance to step into the batter’s box.
That solid performance this spring earned Wiley an assignment to Class AA Mississippi.
This season has certainly had its ups and downs.
Wiley started the season strong, but a violent collision with centerfielder Mycal Jones in the first inning of a game on April 8 sent him to the hospital. He suffered a concussion and was put on the disabled list.
Since his return to the lineup, Wiley has struggled a bit at times offensively.
But, the speedy outfielder just continues to battle and stay positive, as always.
“You’ve just got to keep grinding,” Wiley said. “You’ve got to know it’s going to come back around. Sometimes you just don’t know when.”
That’s the kind of attitude and work ethic that has helped Wiley accomplish goals that are the dreams of many young baseball players all across the country.
“He is an inspiration,” Roof said.
The ultimate goal — playing in the major leagues — is only just a goal, right now.
Still, Wiley is determined to succeed, regardless of the obstacles in his path.
“In the end, I think it makes me a little bit stronger and a little bit better,” Wiley said. “If I make it to the big leagues, I will know I’ve worked harder than anyone.”