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Cleveland: Grae Kessinger Continues the Legacy

Photo courtesy of Rick Cleveland
Photo courtesy of Rick Cleveland

When lifelong Chicago Cubs fan Mary Beth Cannon was a teen, she wrote a letter to Don and Carolyn Kessinger offering to baby sit their boys, Keith and Kevin. She got the job. That was more than four decades ago.

Cannon, now 57 and living in South Bend, Ind., drove back to Chicago this past weekend to watch a baseball game at storied Wrigley Field. There was another Kessinger, Grae, playing in the Under Armour All-American baseball game, and Mary Beth just had to see him.

“Oh my gosh, in many ways I felt like I was 13 again,” Cannon said. “Grae reminded me so much of Donnie Kessinger. He’s tall and lanky like his grandfather. So many of his mannerisms are the same, the way he holds his glove, the way he stands to get ready for a play. The way he moves, so gracefully. It took me back. It was truly amazing.”

Grae Kessinger wore jersey number 11, the same as Donnie (DK to his friends) wore when he was a six-time National League All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner for the Cubs.

For young Mississippi sports fans who may not know Donnie Kessinger: a short dossier: Pure and simply, he was one of the greatest, most multi-talented athletes to ever grace a baseball field or basketball court in Mississippi. At Ole Miss, Donnie was an All American in both sports, scoring 22.4 points a game for his basketball career and hitting .424 to lead the SEC in hitting. As a shortstop, he was a magician. He is widely considered one of the most outstanding fielding shortstops in the history of the sport. Both his sons, Kevin and Keith, starred in baseball at Ole Miss. Grae Kessinger, Kevin’s son, calls DK “Pop.”

Grae Kessinger, just turned 18, a senior at Oxford High, already has committed to play at Ole Miss but likely will have a huge decision to make next spring. Put it this way, Grae Kessinger, a 4.1 student (on a 4.0 scale) and a lifetime lover of Ole Miss, will have to turn down a huge professional signing bonus to play college baseball. He’s that good, that gifted.

Here’s one scout’s assessment of Grae Kessinger: “… has a rare blend of quick feet, soft hands, arm strength and instincts at shortstop. At the plate, he has great barrel accuracy and surprising power.”

Donnie Kessinger says his grandson “is so much stronger than I was. Of course, I was never able to see me play, but if people see similarities in Grae and me, I consider that a compliment.”

The Under Armour game brought together the nation’s 40 best high school senior baseball players. They worked out specifically for Major League scouts. All were immensely talented but only one would be gracing the same hallowed field where his grandfather was a legend.

And, only one played all nine innings amid all the liberal substituting: Grae Kessinger.

“I thought I would be more nervous than I was,” Grae Kessinger said. “It was neat playing at Wrigley, where Pop played. I was able to relax and have fun.”

Grae Kessinger handled every defensive opportunity at both second base and shortstop. He was 0 for three with an eight-pitch walk at the plate, but had good at bats including a long fly ball out to the opposite field. He hit one out far beyond the ivy in batting practice, causing grandmother Carolyn Kessinger to say, laughing: “I’m pretty sure I never saw Don do that.”

“The biggest thing to me,” said Donnie Kessinger, “is that these were the best high school players in the country and Grae showed he belonged. He handled himself well. I’m not surprised. From the perspective of a baseball man and not a grandfather, you really have to see Grae over several games to appreciate him. What he gives you is consistency, day in and day out in his approach, his attitude and his baseball knowledge.”

Believe this: Grae Kessinger understood the enormity of his weekend visit to Chicago. He got it that the huge crowd at Wrigley would include many who had watched his grandfather. On his first trip to the plate, the umpire reminded him, “Kessinger, son, I grew up watching your grandpa play here.”

To his credit, Grae didn’t get lost in the moment. He couldn’t.

“The first pitcher I faced was 6 foot 7 and 230 pounds, a big ol’ dude,” Grae said. “He was throwing 95 miles per hour. That will get your attention.”

Said Donnie, “I don’t know if I would ever have been that calm, facing 17-years olds bringing up there at 95.”

Grae and his Pop are close.

“I’m blessed to have him as my grandfather,” Grae said. “He has taught me so much and not just about baseball, but about how to handle yourself as a man. I still can’t believe he played 16 years in the Big Leagues and you’d never know it. He’s such a gentleman, so humble.”

A role model for sure…

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

Adam Brown
Adam Brown
Sports Editor

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