Editor’s note: Jon Keller of Cedar Rapids, a former professional baseball player, is taking classes at Kirkwood Community College and works part-time in The Gazette’s sports department.
CEDAR RAPIDS — There’s a matter of factness in his voice as he relates his story. That catches you off guard a bit, surprises you more.
Only once does Jon Keller seem to get emotional, and that’s when he talks about his fiancee. They’ve been dating for years, will be married in the fall.
There is an internal promise from him here that discovering, in the span of about a month last winter, he likely was sexually exploited by his youth basketball coach and his professional baseball agent won’t affect him — or them — long term.
It can’t. It won’t.
“I think I’m stronger than that,” Keller said. “I wouldn’t say this has scarred me. Obviously, it’s a part of me now. It’s something I have to live with and move forward on. I’d say you are more aware now. More aware of your surroundings, and that you can’t really trust everybody.”
Keller, 26, was a fine athlete at Cedar Rapids Xavier High School, a top-of-the-line pitcher for the Saints baseball team and a wing player for the basketball team that could shoot it with the best of them. He loved both sports growing up, excelled despite finding out as a teenager he was diabetic.
He decided to give AAU basketball a go in eighth grade. An individual tryout with the emerging Iowa Barnstormers program was set up for him at Marion High School.
Jon’s father, Al, took him. The Barnstormers representative was Greg Stephen.
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“I think I took, like, 30 shots, and I did not miss a single one,” Jon said. “It was incredible. And my dad goes ‘Well, Greg, do you want to see anything else?’ Greg just goes ‘Nope.’”
Stephen pleaded guilty in mid-October to five counts of sexual exploitation of minors, one count of possessing child pornography and one count of transporting child pornography. He awaits sentencing and could receive up to 180 years in prison.
He admitted in court to engaging in sexually explicit conduct to produce videos with five former Barnstormers players under the age of 18. His computer hard drive contained folders of nearly 400 boys: explicit photos and videos of them he had accumulated over the years as a coach.
Prosecutors said Stephen set up cameras in the bathrooms of hotel rooms he and his players would share at out-of-town tournaments. He did the same at his home in Monticello and his cabin at Lake Delhi, places he would invite players to join him.
“From what I remember, I never stayed in the same room as Greg. I was always around him with other guys,” Keller said. “He was very nice, would do anything for you. It was kind of weird because he would always invite us to this townhouse that he had. At the time, I didn’t think it was weird, because he was my coach, a younger coach. He was a father figure to a lot of the guys who maybe didn’t have a dad in their lives. It was a place for us to hang out and kind of get away from our parents and their rules and stuff.
“It’s not like we did anything crazy there or anything. It was just a spot to hang out.”
Keller’s family is close-knit and would join him at many of his AAU tournaments. That’s who he would stay with on the road.
But he knew players shared rooms with Stephen and slept in the same bed with him.
“Greg never touched me or anything like that,” Keller said. “I know he has some footage of me, doing something, somewhere. What did he have, like over 400? I just assume I was one of those. I think maybe my group was just a trial run for him. I think we were his first team.”
Stephen eventually became an assistant coach at Upper Iowa University, Keller left the Barnstormers, played one year for Martin Brothers AAU out of Waterloo, then decided his springs and summers would be spent concentrating on baseball. A right-handed pitcher with a low-90s fastball, he committed to the University of Nebraska and became a legit professional prospect his senior year at Xavier.
The Seattle Mariners drafted him in the 11th round in 2010, but he decided not to sign and went to Nebraska. Unhappy there, he transferred to Division-II Tampa (Fla.) and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 22nd round in 2013.
He signed and began what would be a five-year professional career. Keller retired after the 2017 season.
His baseball adviser, then agent was a man named Jason Wood. Based in St. Louis, Wood represented roughly 50 pro players, including Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi and Minnesota Twins pitcher Jake Odorizzi.
Wood was fired by his agency, Career Sports Entertainment, this past January for failing to uphold its “moral and ethical standards.” National reports surfaced that one of Wood’s clients had discovered a covertly placed camera in a guest bathroom of his home and confronted him about it.
The Major League Baseball Players Association suspended Wood pending an investigation, and he has since relinquished his agent license. At the time of his dismissal, Wood vehemently denied the shower camera charge and no police charges ever have been filed.
Keller said he knows the camera story is true and feels “violated.” He had stayed at Wood’s home several times, as had his fiancee and family.
“That was heartbreaking,” he said. “I was kind of numb to the Greg thing, in a way, because it wasn’t me, personally. It was a bigger scale of people, and I think I was kind of one of the test-run people, or whatever you want to call it. Jason was, obviously, way more personal and on a smaller scale.
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“He was a good friend of mine, had been my agent/adviser since high school, my junior or sophomore year. Someone I had known and loved and who was a friend to me. That was pretty devastating. So many emotions. I went from crying to absolute hatred to crying and hatred again.”
Keller said he actually had talked with Stephen about the Wood incident. Knowing he was going to retire from baseball, he contemplated trying to play college basketball and asked Stephen if he knew anyone at Coe College who could hook him up.
“Maybe he could talk to the coaches,” Keller said. “I told him about Jason and remember telling him ‘Yeah, some people are messed up.’ He paused, then chuckled and said ‘Yeah, some people are really messed up.’ That’s what he said back to me. Little did I know he was doing exactly the same stuff.
“So when I found that out about him (in late February) ... I was simply blown away.”
It has been almost a year now, and this all has become easier for Jon Keller to accept. At least somewhat.
Time heals all wounds.
But as he said, this has become a part of him now. It will always linger.
“I was in a hotel in San Diego (recently), and right above the bed, there was an outlet of some sort that was pulled out of the wall,” he said. “There were just a bunch of wires there. I put a towel in there and covered it. I will do that kind of stuff now.
“The fact that those guys did this, yeah, it’s weird. But it doesn’t bother me, it really doesn’t scar me. It hurt, hurt me a lot. Obviously, they are sick ... (But) after the second incident, I almost laughed. Not because it was funny. It was like ‘How does this happen to me twice over such a short period of time?’
“I just feel so bad for all the kids who had no idea. It makes you wonder how anyone could ever do something like this.”
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