Lexington's Shelby family enjoying three kinds of fun in pro baseball

John Shelby Jr., flanked by sons John Shelby III, left, and Jeremy Shelby, were part of the Legends Caravan last week.
John Shelby Jr., flanked by sons John Shelby III, left, and Jeremy Shelby, were part of the Legends Caravan last week.

Just as he has annually since being a first-round draft pick in 1977, Lexington's John Shelby Jr. will head to spring training next week.

A few weeks after he takes up coaching duties with the Milwaukee Brewers, his prospect sons will report to camps — John III with the White Sox organization, Jeremy with the Orioles.

"It's a blessing," Jeremy says of a family that includes three baseball professionals. "We grew up playing baseball. And as long as you continue to play, you want to keep going to the next level. Once you get out of high school, you want to play in college. And after you play in college, you want to play in the major leagues."

Each Shelby has a story to tell heading into the season.

New spot for Dad

John Jr., a 1976 graduate of Henry Clay High School, played 11 seasons in the big leagues, winning World Series titles with the Orioles (1983) and Dodgers (1988).

Before joining Milwaukee, he worked for the Orioles, Dodgers and Pirates, as well as in the minor leagues.

Now, he's in for a change.

"It will be the first time I haven't been on the field in baseball," he said. "I'm sure it will be (weird)."

As outfield instructor, he'll be on-field for pre-game drills, hitting grounders and fly balls. He will set up an outfield that includes Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Kentucky native Corey Hart.

Then, Shelby Jr. will go upstairs, either to a seat in the stands or in a private booth.

After games, he'll confer with Manager Ron Roenicke and, when needed, adjust the defensive plan.

Then, he'll catch up with his family.

"That's where I learned to get on the Internet. So every night, if they don't call me, I'm on the Internet," he said. "But usually we stay in touch. We're either on the phone or we're texting. I'm a very, very slow texter, but we stay in contact. Probably five, six times a week."

In addition to his sons, Shelby Jr. will keep an eye on his nephew, Josh Harrison, a second baseman who hit .300 in Double-A ball for the Pirates last season. Josh's big brother, former minor-leaguer and University of Kentucky standout Vince Harrison, is considering an offer to play in Italy.

Sweet home Chicago?

John III, a Tates Creek graduate and a 2006 fifth-round draft pick out of UK, has spent the past two seasons with White Sox Double-A affiliate Birmingham.

His goal, of course, is to play in Chicago.

"Last year, I thought it was going to be the year," John III said. "But God had a different plan. There's a lot of things that happened, a lot of growing pains that I had to go through. Now, I feel ready. I feel like this is my time. And if it's not, I'm still going to keep going, but I really feel like it is."

Drafted as a second baseman, moved to center field and then to left, he says he's ready to play anywhere. He carries infield and outfield gloves and, during the off-season, has been taking grounders and flies of all types.

He also has worked to bulk up 10 pounds to 205. He'd like to play at 190-195, up from 185-187 last season.

After a debut in short-season rookie ball with a .272 average in 2006, Shelby hit .301 for Low-A Kannapolis in 2007, followed by .295 with High-A Winston-Salem. At Birmingham, he hit .243 in 2009 and .249 last year.

His most valuable lesson thus far as a pro?

"How to fail," he said. "I've never gone through a slump like I have the last two years, where I felt a little clueless. Just learning from that stuff, man. You can always bounce back. It's baseball — you're going to fail sometimes, but the quicker you bounce back, those are the players that succeed."

And, when times are toughest, he has support.

"It's an awesome thing to be able to pick up the phone and ask my dad 'what does it feel like to do this, how do you go through this?' " John III said. "A lot of people don't have that. That's what's helped me going through these tough times this year and last year. It's a blessing."

Special blessing

"Blessing" is a word that comes up often in Shelby conversations.

Jeremy calls it "a blessing" to have three family members in professional baseball.

He, though, is considered the biggest "blessing" of all.

He was 13, a high school freshman, when he was diagnosed with cancer — Hodgkin's Disease lymphoma.

"I was playing basketball for Tates Creek at the time. A healthy kid, athletic. Didn't really know where it came from," Jeremy said. "It really changed my life in a positive way. It increased my relationship with God, and it just gave me a view on life to where you appreciate every day you get up.

"Whether it's sports or whether it's life, you just want to go at it as hard as you can, and I really took that approach with baseball. Just going out on the field, I never stopped playing. I never stopped practicing. I never wanted to see myself as sick."

Chemotherapy and radiation often made him feel otherwise, but his faith was firm.

"It was tough for me," he said. "But if I could go back and do it again, I think I would. Because the effect it had on my life, it was very positive for me. It was awesome."

Now 23, Jeremy was drafted out of Grambling State in the 38th round last June.

Over 38 games with the short-season Bluefield Orioles, he hit .228 with two homers, 14 RBI and four stolen bases.

"After playing rookie ball, the next step is to make a full-season squad," he said. "I'm excited to go down in spring training, show them what I'm made of. Hopefully, they put me on a full-season squad, whether it's Low A or High A. I just want to play a full season.

"Once I get there, my goals will be to be successful, hopefully hit over .300, make some good plays in the outfield and show them that I'm a good player."

That, as a Shelby might say, would be a blessing.