There are times, Rangers outfielder Roberto Kelly admits, when he'll see Bernie Williams make a dazzling catch or hit a home run or steal a base, and just feel like crap. It's nothing personal. It's simply that, not so long ago, Kelly was the Yankees' centerfielder of the future. He was the one who was going to be doing those things. LOOK, IN CENTER, IT'S A RISING STAR announced The New York Times in 1992. That same season the Daily News enthused, " Roberto Kelly's power, speed and defense is [sic] ample evidence he's the Yankees' next superstar."
Three years earlier, Kelly's first full season in the Bronx, the Yankees, who had finished 14� games out of first in the American League East, badly needed a phenom. "It was supposed to be me," Kelly, now 34, said recently while standing by his locker in the Yankee Stadium visitors' clubhouse, wearing the decidedly pinstripe-free uniform of the Rangers. "Playing center for the Yankees was all I ever wanted—it was my dream.... Mantle, DiMaggio, Roberto Kelly. I wanted it to last. But things don't last, do they?"
Often they don't. The skinny kid from Panama, with his sparkling speed and easy swing, would play six seasons for New York, undercutting flashes of brilliance with maddening inconsistency. In '89 Kelly hit .302 with nine home runs and 35 stolen bases, then batted .285 with 15 homers and 42 steals the following season. However, after Kelly smacked a career-high 20 homers while hitting just .267 and stealing 32 bases in '91, the Yankees' brass started wondering: Would he reach the next level? Answer: not in the Bronx. Instead, he dropped a level—his homers fell to 10 and his steals to 28 in '92—and one month after the season he was shipped to the Reds for an outfielder with a bit of pop, Paul O'Neill, who remains a Yankees fixture in right.
Kelly, on the other hand, inexplicably became a journeyman, playing for seven teams over the next six seasons. "I don't understand it," he says. Indeed, it's more than a tad baffling. Kelly batted .319 in his only full season in Cincinnati and even played in the All-Star Game. However, on May 29, 1994, he was sent to the Braves in a trade for Deion Sanders. In 63 games with Atlanta, Kelly hit .286 with 10 stolen bases but nonetheless was traded to the Expos in April '95 in a deal for Marquis Grissom. Kelly enjoyed his 24 games with Montreal ("I played for them...I think," he says jokingly), yet again left town via trade, this time to the Dodgers as part of a package for outfielder Henry Rodriguez. Then he signed with the Twins as a free agent in March '96, was dealt to the Mariners in August '97 and finally signed with the Rangers as a free agent four months later. Through it all Kelly racked up a .290 average, 115 home runs, 229 stolen bases and more zip codes than a military wife. This season, as the Rangers' fourth outfielder (a role Kelly detests), he was batting .314 through Sunday.
"There's always a need for a Roberto Kelly," says Texas manager Johnny Oates. "Talk to Lou Piniella, talk to me—we love him. It's not that people want to get rid of him so much as someone else always has a stronger desire to acquire him. It's hard to find a guy who can play three outfield positions well, who hits for average and with power, who has good speed, and who can come off the bench cold and produce. Who wouldn't take that?"
To his chagrin, Kelly has an answer: the one team he really wanted to play for, the Yankees.