ST. PETE BEACH — Jennifer McKenney stood alone on her old Little League field as the late afternoon shadows grew longer and longer, signaling the end to a chamber of commerce fall day along the Intercostal Waterway.
She planted herself 60 feet from a ball rebound net she lugged to the field and made throw after throw, 40 in all as she continued her rehab from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, which cost her a rib and was just one of several roadblocks in her pursuit of a spot on the USA national women’s baseball team.
McKenney’s goal is to pitch for her country in the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru.
“She’s somewhat obsessive,” said her dad, Jeff. “She gets that from me. She’ll latch onto this until it runs its course.”
Obsessive is a good word.
McKenney once outraced a hurricane to Durham, N.C., with her friend and fellow Tampa Bay Rays season ticket-holder Joseph McMahan for the sole purpose of getting former Rays pitcher Jay Buente’s autograph.
McKenney needed Buente’s signature on a baseball to keep her Cal Ripken-esque streak alive of getting everyone to have worn a Devil Rays or Rays uniform — player, manager and coach — on the sweet spot of a pearly white baseball.
“An active adventure,” McKenney called the collection that currently sits at 480 autographs.
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There are two stories when it comes to McKenney, a 28-year-old St. Petersburg High graduate who now works as a shift manager for Walgreens in Pinellas Park. Both are active adventures.
There is the pitcher with a decent fastball and overhand curveball who fights through injuries and surgeries to keep one dream alive.
There is the Rays fan from Day 1 who will drive 700 miles to get an autograph of a guy who was a Ray for a couple of hours to keep a streak alive.
Buente appeared in one game in 2011. He pitched two innings against the A’s in Oakland before being optioned to Triple-A Durham.
“The Jay Buentes are the ones you have to work the hardest for,” McMahan said.
Thus, the most rewarding.
Same with playing baseball on the national team, even if it meant surgery on her right elbow in March 2014 to remove a bone spur, thoracic outlet syndrome surgery in August where her first right rib was removed and arthroscopic surgery later this month on her right shoulder to remove another bone spur.
“She’s hard-nosed,” her dad said. “She doesn’t take no for an answer.”
McKenney expects to resume her throwing program in late January.
“I’m investing all this time rehabbing because I’ve never known a life outside of playing,” she said. “Hopefully, knock on wood, I don’t need any more surgeries.”
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The autograph collection began during the Devil Rays’ inaugural season of 1998. Jeff, Jennifer and her brother, Raymond, chased down everyone who wore a uniform that season. They did it again the following season and the season after that.
It wasn’t until about the 2002 season when Jeff realized what he and his children had amassed.
That’s when the hobby became an adventure.
“We always hung around Tropicana Field since Day 1,” Jeff said. “Jennifer’s a ballpark rat.”
The collection is so large it sits in a storage facility, growing larger by the season.
The McKenneys plan ahead by getting autographs of top prospects during spring training. But Buente is one autograph they had to get after the fact.
The pitcher joined the Rays on a West Coast road trip and was sent to Durham before the team returned to Tropicana Field.
McMahan, whose season ticket is near the McKenneys’ seats in rightfield, listened as Jennifer tried to talk her dad into making a run up to Durham in 2011.
“It sounded like an amazing road trip,” he said.
So with Hurricane Irene heading toward the Carolinas, the two made a dash to Durham, arriving in time to see Chris Archer make his Bulls debut. After waiting out the storm, they returned with baseballs signed by Buente and future Rays Alex Colome, Matt Moore and Tim Beckham. All three would be added to the collection, Moore that September, Beckham and Colome in 2013.
“I think they started something that is cooler than people realize,” McMahan said. “Imagine a wall of baseballs signed by every Chicago Cub. And it all started with a guy and his kids. Isn’t that what baseball is all about? Kids getting autographs?”
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Jennifer McKenney never played Little League softball. She’s not a big fan of that game, finding it too confining when compared to the larger dimensions of a baseball field. Instead, she was one of the few females playing Little League in St. Pete Beach.
McKenney picked up softball in high school, and that led to college scholarships. She played at two junior colleges before finishing her career at the University of West Florida.
It was while rehabbing from back surgery in 2011 when McKenney came across an internet story on the USA women’s baseball team. She sent a highlight video from her college softball career and received an invite to a camp in Miami.
“That was the most fun I ever had playing baseball,” she said. “It was the first time I ever played baseball with all women. I looked to my left, to my right and saw people with the same story as me. Totally cool.”
It was at another women’s open tryout camp that McKenney began to suffer control issues.
“I didn’t feel any pain, but the ball was coming out of my hand dead,” she said. “It was bizarre.”
That led to her elbow surgery in 2014.
She went to a camp in Houston the following year, but the control issues returned. It was until last summer that doctors realized the problem stemmed from thoracic outlet syndrome, the same condition that cut short the 2011 season of Rays pitcher Alex Cobb and the 2016 campaign of New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey. It also sidelined Lightning captain Steven Stamkos late last season.
Thoracic outlet syndrome compresses the veins, arteries or nerves that pass from the neck to the arm pit. It is common in women, more so than men.
McKenney traveled to Houston for the surgery, which was performed by the same surgeon who operated on Cobb.
“That was cool,” she said.
She hopes to be ready to pitch this summer at another women’s baseball camp.
If she makes it, McKenney will have a small reminder of the arduous and sometimes painful journey she endured.
The rib she had removed sits in a jar in her bedroom. It will soon be sent to Hawaii, where it will be carved into a seashell that she’ll wear on a necklace.
“It will look like a little white piece of ivory,” McKenney said. “No one will ever know that it’s a rib.”