Lydia Joy Kimbrel is 13 days away from her first birthday.
The Red Sox are four wins away from giving her a most perfect present.
If it happens, if the Red Sox cap this remarkable season with a World Series title, if they end up taking one final champagne shower and partying with a championship duck boat tour, they will share a small but deeply emotional slice of their journey with little Lydia Joy.
The daughter of closer Craig Kimbrel and his wife Ashley is, after all, the toughest fighter in the room, surviving the congenital heart condition that necessitated multiple major surgeries, thriving since the March procedure that forced her dad to miss a large chunk of spring training and through it all, inspiring a group of teammates driven to rally around one of their own, a living, bouncing reminder that as great as it is to win a baseball game, beating the medical odds is so, so much sweeter.
“It’s been a long year. We’ve been through a lot,” Kimbrel said in the haze of the visitor’s locker room in Houston, where he’d just notched his third save of the ALCS, the last one clinching Boston’s trip to the Series. “To have a chance to do this in my professional life is great. Everything at home has been going great as well. She’s doing unbelievable. To be able to share this with her, to be able to go to the next round and share that with these guys, it’s special.”
Think about it. Those rocky postseason outings where Kimbrel repeatedly loaded the bases, working himself in and out of trouble, testing the patience and nerves of even the most ardent Red Sox fans? They’re nothing compared to the many uncomfortable nights sleeping on a hospital couch. Those hard-hit balls, home runs, and close calls that left viewers sweating in exasperation? Nothing compared to the worry, stress, and fear of an ill child. Revelations of tipping pitches that allowed Kimbrel to adjust his delivery and make his last outing his best? Barely a ripple compared to lessons in perspective already well taught.
“What he’s done this season, it’s impressive,” friend and fellow bullpen teammate Heath Hembree said after the team’s workout Saturday. “From his own personal standpoint, he’s obviously been through a lot this past year. Even early on, going back to last year, when we knew what he was going through and what was ahead of him, we were here for him. We stuck by his side. We kept in touch with him all offseason and making sure everything was good. And then spring training, he had a lot of stuff going on then. It was just support for him, whatever he needed from us, just being a brother for him.”
Kimbrel’s teammates wore “We Are #LydiaStrong” T-shirts under their spring training uniforms while he was back in Boston with the family, his manager Alex Cora kept his bullpen spot and locker waiting for him, and when he rejoined the team for good on March 19, he was overwhelmed by their support.
“That meant everything,” Kimbrel said that day in Fort Myers, Fla. “Knowing I’m away and knowing everyone down here is having me and my family on their minds. This is my family as well. We spend more time with each other than we do with our own families, and we’re going to be going through this the entire year, so having their support and having them behind me — to get together and to do something like [those T-shirts], it was great.’’
Locker room dynamics can make for volatile chemistry, a tenuous mix of personalities and egos, of stars and also-rans, of all-stars and journeymen. But it is also a group of human beings, ones stuck together for better or worse, with little room for escape. When one is in crisis, they are all affected.
“Every single body in this clubhouse, what’s more important is our family off the field,” Hembree said. “And you see that when you really look at it, it’s just a game. Sometimes I know it’s a lot and there’s a lot of tension with it and it’s easy to get distracted, but at the end of the day when we leave here and get to be with our families, that’s what matters.”
Cora has proven himself quite the alchemist, there for Kimbrel early in the season when family crisis hit, there for him later in the season, too, when shallower baseball minds might have abandoned him out of frustration. Instead, there the manager was, watching the closer celebrate the ALCS title with his wife and daughter, knowing how much it meant for them to have that moment together.
“Since Day 1 in spring training he’s been tough,” Cora said. “With everything he’s been through family wise we rallied behind him. Everything is great now. To see his family all together in Houston and enjoy what is going on was awesome. It’s been a different year for Craig. Spring training was different, the first half of the season was different. For him to keep battling and keep working at his craft and stay focused to do the job that he’s done all season, it’s been amazing.”
Little Lydia Joy only makes the journey sweeter. She gave this team the gift of perspective. If they can find a way to get those four more wins, what a gift they can give her back.
“It would be something,” Hembree said. “It would be good to tell her about it when she gets older and kind of understand what had happened and what’s going on.”