By Brent Ingram
When JaVon Shelby was 10 years old, there was one way he could get checked out of school early.
Kentucky baseball games at Cliff Hagan Stadium.
His older brother John T., was starring in the UK lineup as a slugging second baseman, which made for a convenient excuse to skip out of school early.
John T. played for the Wildcats from 2004-06 and etched out a permanent place in program history as a fixture on the 2006 Southeastern Conference Championship club. He anchored a lineup that featured SEC Player of the Year Ryan Strieby, helping Kentucky become the first team in SEC history to go from a last-place finish to the league title in the span of two seasons. John T. finished with 33 homers over his UK career, with a .307 average and 131 RBI, before reaching triple-A in the Chicago White Sox system.
JaVon (pictured) joins his brothers John T. and Jeremy (Grambling State) as collegiate baseball standouts, following in the footsteps of their father, John, who charted 11 years in the big leagues, winning a pair of World Series Titles with the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers. John serves as the first-base coach for the Milwaukee Brewers and John T. also serves as a scout with the Brewers.
Ten years later, right back at Cliff Hagan Stadium, JaVon is carving out his own path in UK baseball history.
“I’m just living on the legacy,” JaVon said. “My brother did a great job in the early 2000s and hopefully my brother (Jaren) can too. I was sitting down talking to my dad yesterday and was just telling him how good UK has been for our family and how they treat us as a whole. I am just embracing it and taking it one day at a time and enjoying the experience with all the guys, the coaches and our support staff. It makes you just want to rep that Kentucky blue.”
Entering 2016 as a consensus preseason All-America selection, JaVon has proven himself as an all-conference second baseman his first two seasons. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2014, before earning first-team accolades as a sophomore.
For the 2016 season, JaVon has made a positional change. A player with an ability to play anywhere on the field, he is shifting across the diamond to third base.
“It has allowed me to be more versatile in my game because I’ve proven can be a premier second baseman in the nation’s best conference,” JaVon said. “We have some young players who may fit really well at second base. I am just embracing it and am looking forward to the challenge it is going to bring to me this year.”
Over his first two seasons, JaVon led all SEC second baseman in defensive assists, showcasing his range and competitiveness.
“The skill set was well suited for third base,” UK head coach Gary Henderson said. “It’s clear he’s all-league second baseman. So he can certainly do that at a high level. For a number of reasons it made sense to put him over there. He has played well. Nobody is perfect in our game. We are not looking for perfection in the infield. But he is going to be a good player and he is going to do a good job over there. And his arm works well over there at third base.”
As a sophomore, JaVon hit .312 (63-for-202) with 12 runs, two triples, nine homers and 44 RBI. He ranked third in the SEC in OPS in league games, behind only sluggers Andrew Benintendi and Kyle Martin, ripping seven homers and17 extra-base hits in 29 SEC games.
“JaVon is a physical presence,” Henderson said. “Power, obviously he is a very accomplished offensive player.”
JaVon, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound right-handed hitter, opened 2015 in exciting fashion vs. Ball State in the season opener, hitting a homer in front of his father for the first time in his baseball career. With John wrapped up in MLB Spring Training and the 162-game regular season throughout his adult life, he hasn’t had a bevy of opportunities to watch JaVon’s baseball career from the stands.
“He’s seen, at the most, 12 of my games, total in my lifetime,” JaVon said. “Last year was fun, I just embraced it. I ran into one and dad got it on video. That is going to be a memory that lasts a lifetime.”
No player or coach has had a better vantage point for JaVon’s development than his prep teammate, and friend for over a decade, UK senior outfielder Dorian Hairston.
“It still shocks me to see some of the things he is able to do on the baseball field,” Hairston said. “The place his swing is right now, and the pitches that he is able to turn around, is impressive. JaVon is going to give you the best he’s got and the best he’s got is really, really good baseball.”
JaVon and Hairston join a sizeable class of upperclassmen in 2016, a rare but impactful fact today’s college baseball. The veterans will be expected to provide crucial leadership throughout the ups and downs of the SEC.
“We have a group of guys that have been around together for a while,” JaVon said. “We knew that when we became juniors, this was going to be our team. Within that group of guys, we can break it up where I can help some of the younger infielders, or ZB (Zack Brown) can help some of the younger pitchers. We love having that role and we will do anything to take this team to the next level.”
The youngest of the Shelby brothers, Jaren, is a slugging senior outfielder at Tates Creek High School and signed his National Letter of Intent to play at Kentucky in 2015.
“I’d say Jaren has a different skill set than all of us,” JaVon said. “Jaren has the ability to hit a ball 430 feet, at his age, right now. He has lightening bat speed. He just threw 95 mph from the outfield. So Jaren has more plus potential than all of us did at his age.”
No matter how JaVon’s 2016 season will turn out, Hairston knows it will not change the infectious personality of his longtime buddy.
“JaVon has developed as a player but he is still JaVon. He has always been JaVon,” Hairston said. “He has not changed one bit in the 10-12 years I have known him and his family. He has always been JaVon and will always be JaVon.”
Photo by UK Athletics