Branden Kline took his 98 mph fastball and went home.
The Orioles drafted Kline, a Frederick native, in the second round in 2012 out of the University of Virginia. They aided his recoveries from multiple elbow surgeries that cost him two full seasons, introduced him to the majors in 2019 while providing a nice feel-good story, brought him up again last summer for three games, outrighted him in October and read about his retirement last week on social media.
Kline celebrated his 29th birthday in September. He allowed only one run and two hits with seven strikeouts in five innings. He declined the outright assignment and became a free agent.
So why did he walk away from a game that he loved so much? That kept testing him and couldn’t break him?
To be closer to his wife, Sarah, and daughters Adalyn, 3 1/2 years old, and Avery, seven weeks. To feel closer to God.
To stack his priorities in the right order.
“Thinking about how much I missed with Adalyn,” Kline said Tuesday from his Georgia home. “I missed first steps and her first words, all due to traveling for ball. And at that point we just had Avery, and that’s something that I wasn’t wanting to give up. Those moments that I missed with Addie, I wanted to be there with Avery. So that was a big one.
“Number 2, I’m very big in the spiritual routine, so being able to make my meetings. My mid-week meetings were always at 7 o’clock or 7:30 at night and I could never go to them because we play at night. And on Sunday when I can finally make my meetings, that’s usually at 11 o’clock, 12, while we play at 1. So my spiritual routine, there was really no time for that. My daughters, well Avery, she doesn’t know what the heck I tell her, but Addie, I started telling her about as it talks about Matthew 6:33, which I put in the post on Instagram, ‘Put kingdom interests first and all these other things will be given to you.’”
As Kline studied opposing hitters, digested the statistics and established a plan of attack, he also found himself waging an internal battle. Does he work his spiritual routine around baseball or baseball around his spiritual routine?
“There’s also scripture in Matthew that talks about how you cannot slave for two masters or you’ll like the one and despise the other,” Kline said. “Same thing. The amount of time and commitment that it takes to perform at the highest level, I was leaning more toward baseball, and as the scriptures kind of bring out, that’s not the best way of going about it. So at the end of the day, this is something that, I talked to my wife about this for the past couple months, just meditating on it.
“I’m not going to say it was the perfect time. I’ve had a lot of people reach out like, ‘Why are you deciding to do this at 29? You’ve still got a lot of velo in the tank, still continue to improve, starting to piece some things together.’ And for me it was kind of like the perfect opportunity. I was able to fulfill my duties, fulfill my contract with the Orioles and become a free agent, so be able to leave the game on good terms knowing that I didn’t sign the contract and promise somebody that I was going to fulfill a certain amount of time or years and then back out.”
A few teams expressed their interest in signing Kline. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t unwanted. He was just done.
“My main focus was on my family,” he said, “and so it was just time to put them first and hang them up.”
Kline told his representative immediately after the season that he most likely would retire. The reliever didn’t want to waste anyone’s valuable time with negotiations.
“I loved my time in Baltimore,” he said. “I didn’t really want to go anywhere else, and so mix that with, I have other obligations that I want to achieve, it’s probably time that we go on a separate course and open up a new chapter.”
Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias didn’t rule out re-signing Kline after outrighting him. Kline had the right to decline the assignment based on a previous outright and he also was set to become a free agent based on service time.
“I’m 100 percent confident that there was interest from Baltimore,” Kline said.
“When I got the phone call from Mike saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to DFA you again,’ at that point I knew it was either I elect free agency on Thursday or I become a free agent on Sunday. So it was like, the ability of me to declare free agency a couple days earlier didn’t really matter. But Mike also said, ‘We’re going to have open communication and if it gets to the point of coming back on certain terms, a certain contract, obviously we’re going to do it.’ So Mike was very upfront with it, very honest, just like he’s always been with me throughout the last couple years I’ve known him.”
Kline’s first phone call was made to Elias after he decided to quit baseball.
“Just to thank him for everything he’s done for me,” Kline said. “Obviously giving me the opportunity to live out a childhood dream, but also continuing to give me opportunities over the last two years to showcase what I could do and play at the highest level.”
Wearing the Orioles uniform after the myriad of physical setbacks and ending on a high note with his improved numbers, though in only three games, made it easier for Kline to slip into retirement.
“It’s one of those things where a lot of guys, whether it’s baseball or other sports, they will say that they’re going to continue playing until somebody takes the jersey off their back,” he said. “For me, that’s kind of tough. Obviously, when I was younger I thought the exact same thing, but usually when it’s a team that decides your career is done, there can be some negative thoughts, such as, ‘I’m just not good enough’ or ‘I’ve lost this, I’ve lost that.’ Being able to go out on your own terms leaves you with a lot of positive thoughts, mostly just like the memories from playing and not so much the negative ones.
“I was talking to my wife about that. When I finally came out and said I’m done, all I could think about was all the positive memories of being able to play baseball. From the first time I was able to play when I was 4 or 5 to playing in high school to playing in college, playing in pro ball, playing in the big leagues. There wasn’t a single negative thought that I could think about. And if I retired when a team pretty much says ‘You’re not good enough anymore,’ it could maybe create some doubt in my mind of, well, if I could just do this I could continue to play. By being able to go out on my own terms, I’m leaving the game with a lot of positives and that’s all I can even remember. Even though I know throughout my career from 4 years old all the way up to 29 there were a lot of bad, bad, bad moments. But all I can really think about is the positive ones.”
Retirement doesn’t preclude Kline from working. He has some irons in the non-baseball fires. Ways to provide for his wife and children without prolonged absences.
“I’m going to venture into something where I can spend more time with my family,” he said. “Just being home more is a big thing. It’s not like I can just go home and kick my feet up and never have to work again. I wish that was the case.
“There are a couple opportunities opening since I came out and kind of fit along with my personality, that also fits with my wanting to help others. That was a big thing when I made the Instagram post about me retiring was the amount of former teammates, current teammates, people back in Maryland, guys playing on the West Coast that I haven’t seen in years, them reaching out in some way or another expressing their thankfulness over our paths crossing. They were like, ‘Hey Branden, I just want to let you know you’ve had a huge impact on me, both on the field and off.’ Whether it was those times when I was rehabbing, whether it was times I was actually playing or whether we were just chilling in the locker room talking about normal day activities.
“Many people don’t think about this, but professional athletes have issues just like everybody else does, and so being able to be there for my teammates and show interest and also help them through some things along those paths has been really beneficial. So there’s been a couple opportunities going into the financial sector to be able to help younger kids coming up that maybe need some help with managing their finances, or other teammates I had, being able to show them what you’re able to do once you’re done playing.
“There are a couple avenues like that opening up, so that’s something I’m starting to explore a little more and something that I could potentially be going into here shortly.”