Don Kelly is unemployed. But don’t feel sorry for him.
Don’t ever feel sorry for Don Kelly. He has lived a charmed baseball life and as a result he’s been on the scene for some of the most dramatic moments in the postseason history of the Detroit Tigers. For that reason he will always have a special place in Tigers’ history.
But with his 35th birthday and spring training approaching, his baseball playing career may be over. Whether he plays another inning or not, the Don Kelly Story has been an unlikely baseball journey.
Last November the Tigers offered Kelly a minor league contract which he refused, making him a free agent. He still hasn’t latched on anywhere. Even if he is offered an invite to spring training by some major league team, there’s only a small chance that he’ll win a spot on a 25-man roster. Aging utility players are not a hot item in the big leagues, especially ones that haven’t hit very well for a few years.
But Kelly has bucked the odds before. This is a guy who at the age of 18 was undrafted and enrolled at a liberal arts college in Pittsburgh where he made the baseball team. After three years there where he clearly dominated the low-college level talent, he took a chance and agreed to play in a collegiate summer league, and not a very prominent one. But he opened a few eyes with his play and the Tigers selected him in the 2001 Major League Draft. But even then he was the 237th overall pick and a long shot to see action in the big leagues.
It took him six years to get a shot in the major leagues. Finally his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates placed him on their roster on opening day in 2007 (the Tigers had released him by then after Kelly had yo-yo’ed his way up and down the farm system). But Kelly didn’t hit much and the Pirates let him go after a few weeks. He bounced to Tucson, the Triple-A affiliate for the Diamondbacks and had a decent season for them in ’08 but he still didn’t project as a major league player. At 28 he was essentially considered “filler” — the type of cheap, mature player every organization needs to round out their minor league rosters so they have enough players to compete against prospects with a brighter future.
But Jim Leyland — with ties to Pittsburgh himself — remembered Kelly and he was invited to spring training with Detroit in 2009. That’s when a lot of the baseball charm started to rub itself onto Don Kelly. Just a minor league spring training invitee, Kelly didn’t have a northern Michigan snowball’s chance in hell to earn a spot with the Tigers. He was assigned to Toledo for his third stretch with the Mud Hens. Back in the Detroit farm system, Kelly hit a blistering .331 in Toledo and when Clete Thomas (remember him?) got hurt in June, Kelly was summoned to Motown. In a sweet case of serendipity, Kelly’s first game in a Detroit uniform came against his hometown team, the Pirates, He delivered a two-run single and a double against the Bucs to get his first big league RBIs and extra-base hit.
Why did such an unheralded and lesser-talented player like Kelly keep a job with the Tigers for six seasons? He was versatile. By Kelly’s second season with the Tigers, Leyland had used him at all three outfield positions, second, first, and third base. In 20011 when Smoky ran out of pitchers in a lopsided loss to the Mets, he waved Kelly to the mound where he used a curveball to coax Scott Hairston fly out to center field. Don Kelly could pitch!
In the 2011 ALDS, the Tigers and Yankees battled to a decisive fifth game at Yankee Stadium. In the first inning Kelly hit a solo homer into the right field seats to give the Tigs a 1-0 lead. There he was — Don Kelly — rounding the bases with a postseason home run at The House That Ruth Built. The Tigers beat the Bombers. A year later, almost exactly one year after hitting the homer in Yankee Stadium, Kelly was inserted as a pinch-runner in Game Two of the ALDS against the A’s. He came to bat in the 9th with the winning run at third base and used his long uppercut left-handed swing to loft a soaring flyball into right field. It was an out, but it was enough to serve as a sacrifice fly that scored the game-winning run. It was a walkoff playoff win thanks to the bat of Don Kelly, a career .232 hitter who had batted .186 during the regular season in 2012 with exactly seven runs batted in for his 75 games played. Talk about a charmed life.
Kelly had his best year for Detroit in 2013, playing seven different positions for Leyland and hitting six home runs. He had morphed from “Don Who?” to “Donny Baseball” to “Donnie Kelly Baby” (a favorite nickname from Detroit radio voice Jim Price). A website popped up selling t-shirts like this one, and many female fans started to develop a crush on the Detroit utility man with the forgettable face and high socks.
In many ways Don Kelly symbolizes the city of Detroit, but it would be too dramatic and too easy to try to make the comparison of a “lunch pail” player finding a lasting job in a city filled with hardworking “lunch pail” folks. No, Kelly is a ballplayer who timed it just right. I’ve called it charm, but it’s also a sign of the times he’s played in. Kelly was fortunate enough to come along at a time when big league teams have expanded their pitching staffs to include seven and sometimes even eight relievers. As a result the bench has gotten shorter and shorter. The Tigers didn’t so much crave a Don Kelly as they were required to have a Don Kelly around to wear many different gloves. Kelly’s ability to play third or spell the big guys at first base, or play anywhere pretty adequately in the outfield, or even if need be to play second base and pitch (he also caught part of a game in 2011) is coveted in the major leagues right now because teams don’t carry five outfielders and two utility infielders anymore.
While he was never going to be a superstar, Don Kelly was one of the best “super-subs” in baseball over the last six seasons. He was also an indelible part of four straight division championship teams and he won’t be forgotten in Detroit. Who knows? Maybe when the next injury happens he’ll get another chance to fill in for the Tigers. You shouldn’t feel sorry for Don Kelly, but you shouldn’t bet against him either.