I dialed up Vassar alum Bobby Kinne ’18 on a dark and misty October evening. Droplets of water gathered on my phone as we chatted about his journey to the Tampa Bay Rays, who were competing for a World Series title at the time. I mentioned I was walking the TH path from the baseball field. “I know that walk well,” Kinne said. Kinne’s own path took him from Vassar to the majors—it’s a path few have seen through.
Kinne’s job as an advanced scout is to report on the holes in the Rays’ opponent’s strategies. These days, that means bridging a semantic gap from the front office to the dugout. Armchair critics look back at the palmy days of yesteryear and regard the modern game with suspicion. “Launch angle” and “exit velocity” are the wonky vocabulary of this analytic obsessed era. Kinne’s role as the Rays’ resident “wide-eyed Moneyball kid” is to interpret the myriad of numbers and communicate them to the coaching staff so they can execute most efficiently on the field of play. In his own words, “What makes a good advance report are good players. It’s incumbent upon them to let their natural talent shine,” somewhat contradicting the cold binary of sabermetrics.
Kinne doesn’t try to compare his playing experience to the professionals in the locker room. He’s smart enough never to say to his professional colleagues, “Hey, this guy from Union has a similar fastball…and it was tough to hit buddy.” Still, everyone knows what it’s like to be overmatched in the batters box or battle a slump. “That’s pretty universal,” he observed. Those experiences help him empathize with players and accordingly, perform his job.
He is also the Rays’ video replay monitor. When the team feels a play may have been ruled incorrectly, he helps make the decision whether or not to challenge it. Such a role is liable for little praise and heaps of derision. “If no one ever talks to you about it, it’s a good day,” Kine admitted. I asked if he knew about his professional doppelganger on the Dodgers. Aside from admitting to hearing stories, he couldn’t offer much, saying, “We like to work in the shadows.”
Kinne spoke to me on his day off. The night before, Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers handily beat the Rays in Game 5 of the World Series, pushing his team to the brink of elimination. This was surprising to few, as the Dodgers had the second-highest opening day payroll in baseball ($105.7 million to the Rays’ $28.7 million) and have some of the greatest players around—the five-tooled Mookie Betts, the now postseason-proficient Clayton Kershaw and burgeoning star Cody Bellinger. Wisdom says a low-spending team with a young roster should be happy just to iron the World Series insignia on their jerseys and dance with the Dodgers. Still, to be held so tenuously over the edge of elimination is a sickening pressure. The Rays hadn’t been to the World Series since 2008, and no one wanted to come up short after a month and a half of quarantine in Texas amid a season pillaged of normalcy by the pandemic.
Still, Kinne sounded roundly optimistic over the phone: “If someone said that you’d have two games to win the World Series, you’d take it at the start of the season.” Keeping a cool head—at the World Series or facing off against Skidmore on a weeknight—has served Kinne well during his baseball career. His story reads like an American prophecy; he went to a small high school in small Great Barrington, Massachusetts where his dad taught him to love the game of baseball. In 2015, he came to Vassar to play college ball, where he was a captain for two years. His coach for his last two years at Vassar, said, “he was always working to get his teammates’ voices heard. In some ways, he was a liaison between the players and coaches,” a similar role to his position on the Rays.
Despite baseball’s reputation as rural, white and conservative in both its players and audience, Kinne found that the relative ethnic, economic and religious diversity of Vassar rounded him into a better person and prepared him for multilingual MLB locker rooms. “It forces you to grow and adapt as a human being,” he said. “That experience prepared me for being in the game of baseball, you go into a clubhouse with a better understanding of where you fit in.”
Kinne’s desk is in the clubhouse, which means he has a glimpse into that most intimate and well-protected layer of sport: the professional locker room. Although some may jest that Vassar and the Rays spend similarly, the incentive to secure generations of prosperity is the first difference that comes to mind between Kinne’s Brewers and the MLB Rays. “Players aren’t just playing to win a World Series, they’re playing to support their families,” Kinne observed.
Playing baseball for a chance to win generational wealth is more than a dream. It’s a hard-earned privilege. To this end, he explained, “I think there is a degree of weeding out of character.” For Kinne, computing the paper advantage is only half the battle: “I think the intangibles of a player’s makeup are vital…even in this Moneyball revolution.” At the professional level, Kinne has observed that when things are going badly, there isn’t panic. “There’s a shared understanding that everyone is giving their best effort,” he said. In the professional locker room, “The goal doesn’t need to be reiterated…people don’t need a pump up speech.”
I’m tempted to cache the inside baseball knowledge Kinne shared with me for insignificant arguments down the road. But what I will say is this: The Kershaw kids ride their scooters to get morning coffee with dad, and in drunken, post-pennant-clinching glory, Randy Arozarena had a lot of fun dancing in his cowboy boots. Oh, and another thing: “They definitely know about Vassar baseball.”
The professionals take notice when Kinne wears Vassar gear. When he heads out for a run in the burgundy and grey, Rays General Manager Erik Neaner yells, “Vassar’s finest!” There are guys that are curious about the spectacle of Division III baseball (the last bastion of ameteur athletics, some say). While I’m sure Vassar would love to have a piece of Kinne’s World Series bonus, they’ll have to make due with the exposure inside the Rays locker room. On Tuesday, the Dodgers vanquished the Rays.
The Dodgers may have won the championship, and Kinne may have the coolest job off the diamond, but the real winner may be his dad, who still gets to watch his son take part in the sport that bonds them. Kinne recalled his final at bat as a Brewer in the spring of 2018. It was the playoffs, and Vassar wasn’t going to advance. He stepped into the batter’s box, soaking in his last moment at the plate. “Those final games are very emotional. For most guys and girls there’s nothing after that,” he thought out loud. It happens for every athlete. In one instant, a whole life comes to an end, leaving in its wake the frustration of losing a hard practiced skill. Kinne lived up to the moment. He drew a walk, and when he was ceremonially called off the field, the Liberty League competitors he’d come to admire and respect gave him a standing ovation. “Seeing my dad and knowing that was special, but the thing is… it wasn’t the last time I stood on a baseball field, glove in my hand, and got to see my dad.” That’s the amazing thing about sports, we agreed. Kinne, nor any other strategist of the game, could draw it up better than that.