Riding the Wave to Pittsburgh
NOTE: This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of the Indianapolis Indians Game Day Magazine. All stats were updated as of July 9, 2018.
The Indianapolis Indians were 48-39 at the All-Star break, just one-half game back of the Toledo Mud Hens for first place in the International League West Division and all alone atop the IL Wild Card standings. Another season, another threat toward the franchise's third Governors' Cup title.
Being part of a winning team is nothing new for Kevin Kramer.
We'll start with the 16-year-old teenage version of Kramer, barely old enough to get behind the wheel in his native California.
Playing for USA Baseball's U-16 squad in Taiwan and donning the Red, White and Blue for the first time in his career in summer 2009, Kramer was part of an up-the-middle trio that featured current Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor and Chicago Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr.. Team USA overcame a 5-1 deficit to defeat Cuba 7-6 in the championship, with Kramer contributing a sacrifice fly in a decisive ninth inning that helped the U.S. bring home gold.
"That team was special," said Kramer, looking back at the first of many championship teams he's suited up with. "There were a lot of big talents [on that team], but it didn't matter. It was a team-first mentality, something I've seen with nearly every team I've been on."
Later that fall, as a sophomore at Turlock High School, Kramer grabbed the reins as varsity quarterback with dual-threat ability. Two years later, he exceeded 1,000 yards in both passing and rushing while totaling 31 touchdowns (15 passing, 16 rushing) en route to Central California League MVP honors.
But it was baseball that had Kramer's heart from the start.
"I always knew I'd be able to play baseball at a higher level than football," Kramer said. "I talked to a few schools like Sacramento State, Reno and Fresno [about football]. They expressed some interest, but it was nothing more than just interest and I never let it get any further. I had a lot of fun playing high school football but knew I wanted to explore more in the baseball world."
Kramer's high school baseball coach told him two things about baseball that can't be beat: "being on a good team and getting better yourself." To Kramer, they went hand in hand.
He was a three-time, first-team All Central California League selection at Turlock and hit .350 as a senior.
He committed to UCLA and kept on winning. As a freshman in 2012, the Bruins reached the College World Series but bowed out of the tournament with a 1-2 record. Kramer and UCLA returned to Omaha the following summer, defeating Mississippi State in the best-of-three finals to earn the school's first baseball national championship.
"Whenever you're winning, whenever that team has the chemistry to win, especially in the postseason, it's just the mentality of doing whatever it takes to win ballgames," said Kramer, recalling what he dubbed his top baseball moment to date. "It's not always flashy, it's not always sexy. The only thing that matters is winning and losing."
UCLA failed to reach the CWS during Kramer's junior and senior seasons, but the Pirates selected him in the second round of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft, continuing a decade-long run many 16-year-olds could only dream about.
After his senior season ended at UCLA, he joined Short-Season A West Virginia for 46 games before jumping to Low-A West Virginia to finish the season. That Power club, led by current Indians manager Brian Esposito, won a club-record 87 games and posted a .626 winning percentage, the third-best mark among all full-season teams in Minor League Baseball.
Each of the next two years, Kramer was part of league championships with High-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona.
This year, his first in Triple-A, the Tribe infielder smashed a career-high 11 home runs before the All-Star break; he hit 10 in his first three pro seasons combined. He batted .330 with 19 extra-base hits over 26 games in June, a month where the Tribe totaled a league-best 18 wins. The Indians went 45-32 when Kramer's name was in the starting lineup in the first half.
It's the team-first mentality that has carried Kramer to this point.
"Everyone wants to become a major leaguer and have a successful career," said Kramer. "But you can have a really good career by winning ballgames. At the end of the day, it's not about the personal stats. You remember wins and losses."
He and his teammates have brought plenty of wins to Indy over the season's first three months. And he expects that to continue through the dog days of August, into September and beyond. Bringing a championship to Indy would mark his fifth title in 10 years. If it doesn't happen in the International League, then it's a future World Series he's set his sights on.
"The people we have coming up who can contribute in many ways, it's not out of the question in bringing a World Series title to Pittsburgh in the upcoming years," said Kramer, with a determined look.
Coming from a 24-year-old already having four major championships under his belt, it'd be tough to doubt him.
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International League Stories from August 28, 2018
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