PORT CHARLOTTE — The obstacles, biases and long odds Kevin Kiermaier overcame in rising from 31st-round draft pick to the reward of a six-year, $53.5-million deal will be forever considered a testament to hard work, determination and drive.
And now the Rays centerfielder extraordinaire is really ready to show you something.
"I still want to leave my legacy on the game, and I'm going to prove that with this contract," Kiermaier said Monday, during formal announcement of the deal, fittingly on the deck overlooking centerfield at the Charlotte Sports Park. "I'm not going to change my work ethic or anything like that. I'm still so hungry. I want to be great in this game, and play for as long as possible."
As dazzlingly impressive as Kiermaier, 27 in April, has been defensively in winning the first two of many Gold Gloves, as much promise as he has shown of becoming a disruptive offensive force with his combination of power and speed, as popular as he has become among their fans, the Rays don't make this size of an investment — worth potentially $66.15-million with incentives and a 2023 option — just on (considerable) good looks and talent.
"We're very careful and deliberate about the players we approach with these long-term contracts," Rays baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "It does come down to character."
Kiermaier is the third player the Rays under Stuart Sternberg's ownership have signed for at least six years, and they are comfortable enough to place him alongside Chris Archer and Evan Longoria as faces of their franchise.
"Kiermaier fits right into that category," Silverman said. "Someone who isn't going to change his style of play. He's going to work just as hard, maybe even harder to go and prove he's worth that contract. And more importantly, to help the team win."
Ultimately, of course, that's the idea. And how Kiermaier does that beyond the acrobatic catches and daring dashes around the bases is just as valuable.
"Character is off the charts, the positivity, the confidence," manager Kevin Cash said. "It's always a special quality to have when you're very self confident, but you don't come across as rubbing people the wrong way. I think KK really fits the mold about as well as anybody I've been around. ... He just has that infectious energy that can energize a dugout, a clubhouse. It really shows up when there's some difficult times during a season."
Archer raves with the rest of the pitchers of the confidence they have with Kiermaier behind them, knowing "if it's not caught then literally nobody on the planet would have caught the ball."
But, Archer said, "the most impressive part is he's continually trying to get better even though he is the best. And that's what the most successful people in the world do."
Laughing in telling how he shared news of the deal with his parents via Skype since his mom still has a flip phone and his dad won't carry one, Kiermaier remains very much rooted to his humble upbringing in Fort Wayne, Ind.
His relatively simple tastes (including the Impala he drives), his preference for the low-key nature of the Tampa Bay market he plans to call home forever, his "easy decision" to sign on once the Rays offered the security of the long-term deal provide further evidence.
"He actually reminds me a little bit of Torii Hunter in terms of the character, and the desire to go out and do what's right," agent Larry Reynolds said. "Kevin is special in that regard."
The chip from being the 941st player in the 2010 draft still sits on Kiermaier's shoulder and -— no matter how large his paycheck, no matter how comfortable his life becomes as recently bought his first house and got engaged — will continue to be a motivating force.
"This is a day that I can't say it's unbelievable because I've always dreamed of this and I've worked my butt off ever since I got to junior college to try and make this moment happen, and here it is," Kiermaier said.
"I couldn't be more thankful and grateful for this opportunity and everything else that comes along with it. A lot of hard work and dedication can make a lot of great things happen.
"I'm telling you, I'm the happiest man on the planet right now."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.