FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Aubrey Huff looked down at his cell phone, recognized the phone number of the incoming call and realized he probably was about to get bad news. He just never fathomed it would be this bad.
It was about 7:30 on a November morning, an odd time for a phone call from Tampa Bay Rays traveling secretary Jeff Ziegler.
"I picked it up and thought, 'This probably can't be good.' And he said, 'Huffy, I just want to give you the heads-up that Joe Kennedy has gotten into an accident,' " Huff recalled. "I was like, 'Gosh, is he OK?' It obviously had to be bad if he was calling. He goes, 'Well, he died last night.' I just said, 'What? Is this a dream?' At the end of the day, we found out what happened. When something like that happens, you come to realize what's important in life."
Huff, now the Orioles' first baseman and cleanup hitter, and Kennedy, a pitcher, had arrived in the majors a year apart with Tampa Bay and quickly become close friends. They were both gregarious personalities and free spirits who enjoyed the big league lifestyle.
Kennedy hadn't been in an accident that day in 2007, but he had collapsed and died as a result of hypertensive heart disease. His death was one of several experiences for Huff that helped change his outlook and resulted in one of the best seasons of his career.
Also that month, Huff made derogatory comments about the city of Baltimore on a satellite radio show, earning a hefty fine from the club and the jeering of its home fans. Then in November, Huff and his wife, Baubi, welcomed their first child, Jayce.
"I grew up really fast in a short period of time," Huff said. "I just let it all go. I quit worrying, especially with my son being born and Joe dying. I really had a lot of stuff going in my head and I told myself, 'This is just a baseball game. This isn't life. Just go out and have fun every day and not worry about your numbers.' When I went out there and had my best years in Tampa, that's what I did, just played the game and went out there and had fun.
"It just got to the point where it was really, really hard to deal with. I was going, 'Is this even worth it?' I know we're paid a lot of money as a professional athlete and that sounds stupid to say, but you really want to play well and compete and I was just not doing that."
Wearing No.17 last year in honor of Kennedy, Huff batted .304 with 32 homers and 108 RBIs, his best season since 2003, when he hit .311 with 34 homers and 107 RBIs for Tampa Bay. He led the league in extra-base hits (82), was third in total bases (330) and doubles (48) and fifth in slugging percentage (.552), numbers that earned him a Silver Slugger Award.
"I knew I could do it because I've done it before," said Huff, who hit .280 with 15 homers and 72 RBIs in 2007 after signing a three-year, $20 million deal with the Orioles. "Something in mid-May just kind of clicked, and I don't think I've ever been in that good of a groove. I felt really good mentally for three months straight. That was as good as I felt on a baseball field in my whole career."
His performance at the plate quieted the boos from the home fans, who were still stinging from Huff's appearance on the Bubba the Love Sponge show.
"I knew the only way to make all the fans of Baltimore not hate me was to put up numbers and hit," Huff said. "In a weird way, that show was a blessing. Obviously, it wasn't smart and I wouldn't recommend anybody doing it, but it turned out to be kind of a motivational factor to get myself going."
Orioles manager Dave Trembley was impressed with the way Huff was able to block out all the potential distractions.
"He has the uncanny ability when something goes wrong, he lets it go," Trembley said. "He likes to hit, and he's obviously good at it. He didn't give any at-bats away, he used the other side of the field, he's not afraid to hit with two strikes. He shows the ability to hit left-handed pitching. Whatever he did, I hope he does it this year."
Huff, who is entering his free-agent year, acknowledged he did little this offseason, sticking to the routine that worked so well for him after the 2007 season, when hernia surgery prevented him from doing baseball activities until spring training.
He did make good use of his time off, traveling to Denver with his wife to spend time with Kennedy's widow, Jami, and their two children.
"Every day I put the jersey on, I see Joe's number and it's tough, but the days go by and it gets a little easier," he said. "She's doing a lot better, and their kids are growing up nicely. Joe is one of the better friends that I've been around in baseball. It was definitely tragic, but he's in a better place."