Neither Papi, selected 38th overall by the Cleveland Indians in the 2014 draft, nor Kirby, selected 40th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2015 draft, had the good fortune to ever appear in a major league game.
They both made it as high as the AAA level, a step below the big leagues, before hanging up their cleats for good. Both retired within the last two years, giving way to what happened over the last five months when Papi and Kirby, once touted student-athletes, became simply students writing the next chapter in their lives.
Nathan Kirby: Seeing the Big Picture
Donovan Fifield, a doctoral candidate in UVA’s history department, teaches a capstone course, “Money and Atlantic Empires, 1500 to 1800,” each Wednesday from 3:30 to 6 p.m. in the Rotunda.
Like most instructors, Fifield likes to arrive to the classroom well before the course begins and make any final preparations prior to the students’ arrival.
This semester, his quiet time had company.
“When I show up,” Fifield said, “Nathan’s usually the only other person there for a while.”
Timely appearances have long been part of Kirby’s UVA story. During the 2015 season, Kirby missed nine weeks of action due to a strained lat muscle, only to return in June as the Cavaliers were deep in their NCAA Tournament run and in need of a pitching boost.
Kirby delivered with a six-out save against Vanderbilt University on June 24 that clinched the national title for Virginia. The performance is forever etched in Wahoo lore.
That was Kirby at 21 with, conceivably, a bright future ahead in the sport. He’s now 29 and wears the scars of four upper-body surgeries over the last decade.
He’s not bitter that things didn’t go to plan. He’s thankful, rather, for the perspective he gained during eight seasons in the minor leagues.
“After my surgery in 2017,” Kirby said, “the big anxiety I had was, ‘Am I wasting my time? Is this what I want to do?’”
As a kid growing up in Richmond, Kirby, for family reasons, moved several times. The baseball field, where he displayed obvious talent, became his escape. He drifted there because he excelled there and was rewarded there, but did he really love it there?
Kirby asked himself that question while alone during injury rehab.
“I think differently, and I share different interests than a lot of professional athletes,” he said. "And I realized when baseball was taken away from me that I was interested in a lot of other things.
“While baseball was the thing I was singularly good at, I realized it was just the thing I used to learn about life. It was more so a teacher for me than an avenue for success in the future, which is why you could say I was ready for it to end.”
Kirby threw his final pitch in professional baseball on June 16, 2022. He re-enrolled at UVA months later on a mission to earn the 11 credit hours he had left to graduate after his first stint on Grounds.
The history major took four courses this spring, commuting back and forth from Richmond on Mondays and Tuesdays. After Wednesday sessions with Fifield, he’d stay overnight in Charlottesville at the home of Kenny Towns, his former UVA teammate, and then take his final course of the week on Thursdays.
“I’m having fun,” Kirby said in early April, in a meeting room in Disharoon Park. “It’s completely different than being back in baseball, but I’m enjoying it. Life is about challenging yourself and undertaking those challenges.”
Fifield described Kirby as an engaging student who likes to focus on the entirety of a concept rather than individual details.
“He really loves the big picture takeaway,” Fifield said. “Some people are kind of in the weeds, and he chooses the big concepts and finds them applicable. That’s somewhat rare for students.”
Kirby’s approach to his studies mirrors how he’s attacked life since coming to grips with his baseball reality. He benefits from thinking wholistically about every situation.
It’s what stopped him from getting back on the pitcher’s mound this season.
“I was going to play again, but then I started to weigh out what was going to make me happier as a human,” Kirby said. “In the end, I understood that if I kept playing, I might be trading time with my fiancée, time with my family, time building a family, time getting into a career and making my way back into society.”
Kirby, who plans to marry this fall, is still pondering his next move after next week’s walk down the Lawn. He’s given thought to firefighting, but, right now, he’s “just trying to let the dust settle from baseball,” he said.
Soon, he can finally rest with a UVA degree in hand.