Native professional athletes are emerging across the United States, with many like Notah Begay and Shoni Schimmel adding their names to this elite group with the legendary Billy Mills. In recent years, the growth of Begay and Schimmel has ignited Native fans from tribal communities, inspiring tribal youth and bringing pride to tribal households. Emerging into this list of esteemed athletes is White Mountain Apache tribal member, Sabastian Kessay.
Kessay comes from the small community of Hon-Dah, located on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in the White Mountains of Arizona. In 2013, Kessay was selected in the 22nd round draft pick for the Houston Astros as a pitcher. As a young rookie, Kessay currently plays for the Astros franchise on the Tri-City Valley Cats of New York.
“I was selected to play for the Houston Astros organization. Many people think that professional athletes are drafted and added to the starting roster. That isn’t how it works for most people though. It’s like a job, everyone starts somewhere, develops their skills and gains experience and climbs the ladder. Starting with the Astros in the minor league is just that. I have to start somewhere, grow as an athlete, perfect my skill, get experience in professional sports and then continue to grow within the franchise. For many pro athletes, this is how they start,” stated Kessay.
As a professional baseball player, Kessay spends 7 months a year playing baseball and the remainer of the year, relaxing, visiting family, working with youth in the community and training. During those 5 months, he can be seen in the White Mountains enjoying the snow and the outdoors. After spending a few seasons with the franchise, Kessay is now developing his community outreach efforts, to give back to Apache youth through motivational speeches and baseball camps and clinics. “I am an athlete who is continuing to grow myself and pursue my dream and career. I have spent a few seasons doing just that. However I am now at a point in my career where I will be hosting some baseball camps and appearing at events speaking to youth about life and their dreams,” he stated.
Kessay grew up on the reservation and attended school in Pinetop. He began playing baseball at the age of 7, when his parents signed him up for the Pinetop t-ball league. Once he gripped the bat for the first time and journeyed around the bases to home plate, he was instantly addicted to the sport. Since that first season in t-ball, Kessay has been playing baseball ever since. Kessay has been inspired by Major League pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, and can remember watching both pitch for the Diamondbacks and winning the World Series. “Watching those guys win a World Series and be the best pitchers in the world, right here in Arizona, really motivated me to grow as a pitcher and that’s when I felt that all I want to do for the rest of my life is play baseball,” said Kessay. In addition to the sports icons that inspired him, Kessay credits his father for starting him in the game, fostering his early skills and for always supporting him throughout his journey. “My dad has had a huge impact on my career and I reflect on his influence in my life each and every day,” he added.
In 2014, Kessay underwent a Tommy John surgery on his elbow, which is a common procedure for pitchers in professional baseball. Since October Kessay has been in Scottsdale, Arizona, recovering from surgery, training and preparing to retake the mound in July.
Coming from rural Arizona, Kessay has accomplished a great deal for a 21 year old professional pitcher. His ultimate goal is to lead by example and pursue his dream of playing in Major League Baseball. Kessay stated, “We all have goals for ourselves. I am focused and train hard daily because no matter what we do professionally we have to grow. My career is not a matter of luck. It is a matter of skill and dedication. Growing myself into a professional athlete is dependent upon myself, my dedication to the sport, my dedication to perfecting my technique and my desire to continue to move forward. I am blessed that every day, I wake up and play baseball. It doesn’t get any better than that. I am very proud to say that I play professional baseball, and I am honored that my experience has taken me to places I have never been before.” After graduating high school, Kessay’s father put life into perspective for his son, asking the simple question “do you want to be bored in an office, or going to school, or working a 9 to 5 job or do you want to play baseball?” Unsure if he would ever get an opportunity again to play a sport he is so passionate about, Kessay moved forward and launched his career in professional baseball.
As an emerging athlete, Kessay hopes to not only become an inspiration to youth on the reservation, but also an inspiration to youth in rural areas. His vision is to become the spark that ignites the flame in the hearts of youth to become who they really want to become, and to demonstrate to youth that he is living proof that hard work, self-determination and focusing on dreams pays off. Coming from a rural and isolated tribal community, Kessay can relate to today’s youth, knowing that he shares the same roots, same beginnings and same struggles.
“I hope that I bring a sense of pride to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, and I hope that my story inspires others. I am focusing on recovering from surgery, starting a season and progressing my athletic career. I live each day like it is the last, being who I am, staying true to myself and my Apache roots and making my journey a huge adventure,” said Kessay.
Kessay recognizes the responsibility that comes with being a professional athlete and realizes that there are many great role models within tribal leaders, community activists and tribal artistry, but more mentoring and encouragement by athletes like himself are needed for youth.
In the coming season, fans can follow Kessay with the Tri-City Cats of New York, where he will take the mound and continue pursuing his professional baseball dream.