It was a pitch way down in the zone thrown by New York Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova that was hit over the right field fence for a home run to give the Detroit Tigers a 1-0 lead over the Yankees. This was America’s introduction to utility man Don Kelly.
Don Kelly was born February 15, 1980 in Pittsburgh suburb Butler, Pennsylvania and played high school baseball at Mount Lebanon High School with Josh Wilson who played with the Milwaukee Brewers this season.
Considered “undraftable” at that time, Kelly then attended college at then Point Park College (now known as Point Park University) where he hit .413 and in 500 at-bats struck out only 20 times. Kelly was inducted into Point Park’s Athletic Hall of Fame in October of last year.
This coupled with a stint in a summer league with the Petersburg Generals of the Coastal Plain League.
When I talked with Kelly before his October induction, Kelly mentioned the importance that summer meant for his career.
“The one summer that really helped me was going to play Summer Collegiate Wooden Bat League down at Petersburg, Virginia against some pretty good Division I players. That was the first time that I had to prove to myself that I could do it,” Kelly said. “I could play, but, to go down there and play against these top caliber [Division I] guys was great to prove to myself that I could play against them, which gave me the confidence going into pro ball that I know that I can hang with these guys.”
The summer coupled with his play at “little” Point Park University were enough to garner serious draft interest, and the Tigers drafted Kelly in the eighth round of the 2001 Major League Draft.
Kelly then experienced some highs in his years in the Tigers Minor League system. Highs included becoming the starting shortstop for the Eastern All-Stars in the Midwest League’s All-Star Game, a promotion to the Double-A Affiliate Erie SeaWolves
It was during his time in Erie, where Kelly hit a low injuring his shoulder and missing most of the 2004 season. It would have been very easy for Kelly to give up on his Major League dreams, but Kelly pressed on, and in 2005 hit .340 in 82 games. Kelly was back, and Baseball America named him “best hitting prospect in the Eastern League”.
“Everybody sees the guys in the Major Leagues but you never see the guys in the Minor Leagues struggling to get up there playing every day battling for just one shot at the big leagues and you’ve got to have that perseverance and that drive to make it,” Kelly said.
Then another low happened. He was promoted to the Tigers Triple-A Affiliate Toledo Mud Hens and experienced a dip in average and a groin injury which sidelined him for a short period of time. He then in 2006 returned to Erie and was removed from the 40-man roster at season’s end becoming a free agent.
Things took a turn for the better when he ended up putting pen to paper with his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates signing a minor league contract in 2006.
He ended up making the Pirates in 2007, but had only 27 plate appearances hitting .148. Before long his happy ending was ended as he was designated for assignment once again, this time on June 12. He finished the season with Pirates Triple-A Affiliate Indianapolis Indians but was granted free agency at the end of the season.
In 2008, Kelly went to the desert signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Kelly played the entire season with the Triple-A Tucson Sidewinders hitting .275 but Kelly once again was granted free agency at season’s end.
It was another crossroads for Kelly and there had not been a right fit at the time. When the phone did ring in the offseason it wound up being the Detroit Tigers, the team that had drafted Kelly to start his professional career.
Kelly signed with the team and joined Triple-A Toledo. Kelly received the big break he long wanted had arrived as outfielder Clete Thomas was injured and it was Kelly who on June 11, 2009 was given the call to join the Tigers and Manager Jim Leyland, a name whom Kelly was familiar with for his time managing the Pirates.
Leyland knew Kelly’s story, and knew that the Tigers would be playing the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kelly’s hometown team and likely made the call up so that Kelly could play in front of all of his family and friends. Little did anyone know that Kelly from then on would be a fixture on the team. Leyland became Kelly’s biggest supporter, and even at the Point Park Hall of Fame Induction, there was Leyland sticking close to Kelly and interacting with the guests.
When Kelly donned the Tiger uniform for the first time, it was against the Pirates and Kelly batted in two runs and hit a double, his first Runs Batted In and extra base hits in his Major League Career.
Kelly continued his work in the off-season and the Tigers added more fielding positions for Kelly to play and now Kelly can play first base, third base and the outfield in addition to the shortstop position he already was equipped to play.
Kelly’s ability to play all of these positions allowed for Kelly to get that 25th and final roster spot coming out of Spring Training in 2010. He was able to provide depth and a boost when needed. The team knew that Kelly would be able to play any position he was asked to, and thus had to buy almost every single glove in existence and bring them to the ballpark as he would never know where he would play on a given game.
Kelly was named to the Tigers again in 2011 and further proved his worth. On June 29 against the New York Mets, Kelly was called to pitch due to a depleted bullpen and got Scott Hairston to fly out on his fifth pitch a curveball. Doing this made Kelly the first player to pitch in a game since 2000 when Shane Halter had to do toe the rubber. Kelly then made more history three nights later against the World Champion San Francisco Giants. Starting catcher Victor Martinez left the game in the fourth inning and Leyland told Kelly to don the catcher’s mask. By doing so, Kelly played all nine positions on the Major League field, a rare accomplishment.
Kelly has been a spark plug to the Tigers team this season filling in when needed with seven home runs and 28 Runs Batted In, Kelly became a “great 25th man on the roster” according to Leyland.
The rest of the story is not as vague to baseball fans as Kelly really emerged in the public eye in the ALDS against the Yankees. Kelly hit .364 with a home run and two Runs Batted In while playing at third base and right field.
Regardless of the outcome of this Tigers season, Kelly has had a successful season as he continues to live his Major League dreams.
When the Tigers season does come to an end, Kelly will come back to his Wexford, Pennsylvania home where he is known simply as Donnie and Pirate second baseman Neil Walker is his brother-in-law.
In 2002, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did an article on Kelly and they interviewed Kelly’s Point Park Baseball Coach Mark Jackson who at the time has nearly 600 wins with Point Park and the Pittsburgh Panthers, had this to say about Kelly, “Don Kelly was the best player I ever coached,” Jackson said. “I might have had a kid with better stats, but when you look at the total package – character, passion for the game, talent – he was the best.”
Well said Coach Jackson, well said.