Like many of you, the news that long time super-utility man Don Kelly had signed a minor league deal with the Miami Marlins hit me pretty hard. Out of all the great players that have come and gone for the Tigers over the last six years, Don Kelly somehow remained a constant. Kelly only posted a mere 0.4 WAR during his tenure in Detroit, and was never a starter, but managed to play a much bigger role in the hearts of most fans.
I'm a big numbers guy, and try to stay away from most sports narratives. However, with Don Kelly, I just couldn't help but throw numbers out the window. Why? I'm not exactly sure. It could've been that I remembered seeing him as a kid at Fifth Third Field when he played for the Mud Hens. It could've been because he always seemed (and turned out to be when I met him) like a genuinely good dude who enjoyed every second of being with the Tigers. It also could've been the illusion that he always came through when the Tigers needed him to.
It's hard to put into words the exact reasons as to why I love Don Kelly. I mean, he's Don Kelly! How could you not love him? Despite all the obvious reasons such as "he isn't very good," or "he has no business batting anywhere but ninth," he still managed to become one of the most notable players in Detroit over the last few years. He's Donnie Do-It-All! He's played all positions on the field except shortstop! He's Donnie Deeds, baseball's favorite do-gooder! He has his own freaking shirt line for gosh sakes! How many other back ups in any sport have their own line of shirts?
Don Kelly is one of only eight players who has been on the active roster for all four of the last AL Central Division championships. He's never been a big time contributor to any of those teams, but he was along for the ride nonetheless. Known as a Grade-A clubhouse guy, Donnie did have a few unforgettable moments while sporting the Olde English D.
In Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS at Yankee Stadium, Tigers' skipper Jim Leyland decided to hit Don Kelly second in the lineup against Yankees' starter Ivan Nova. While many fans complained about Leyland's decision, Kelly rewarded him by doing this in the first inning of the game.
That's right, good old Donnie Baseball got the Tigers on the board with a ding dong over the right field softball porch! Former Tigers' great Delmon Young followed suit with a solo shot to left field, and the Tigers won a nail biter 3-2 to advance to the ALCS. I remember eating dinner at my dad's house in the dining room with the audio of the TV in the living room turned up so I could hear the game. When I heard the announcer's voice raise, I ran into the room to watch the magic happen. I heard my dad yell from the other room "who hit it?" I replied enthusiastically "Don Kelly!" He asked confusedly "the Mud Hens' guy?" Former Mud Hen's guy, dad, current Tigers' legend. Legends are born in October, and Don Kelly's postseason jack was storybook material.
The following October, the legend of Don Kelly continued, only this time in walk-off fashion. I remember that 2012 day at Comerica Park fondly. Sitting far out in the left field seats at the game with one of my best friends. After surrendering the lead in the eighth inning, the Tigers came to bat in bottom half of the inning down a run to the Oakland Athletics. Delmon Young started the inning with a single, and was lifted for a pinch runner. Not just any pinch runner though...
As Donnie Hustle jogged out to first base to relieve Young of his duties, I couldn't help but smile to my friend. After a Jhonny Peralta single, an Andy Dirks bunt, and a Quintin Berry strikeout, Don Kelly found himself on third with two outs. With Alex Avila pinch hitting for Gerald Laird, Ryan Cook of the A's threw the first pitch of the at-bat to the back stop. Donnie raced home as the crowd went wild. Tie game going to the ninth.
However, the Don Kelly heroics were far from over. In the ninth inning with the bases loaded, none other than Don Kelly stepped to the plate with the game on the line. I remember specifically looking over at my friend and saying "this one's over."
Sure enough, with one swing of the bat, Don Kelly sent a Grant Balfour fastball high and deep to right field. It wasn't a home run, but it did the job. I remember jumping up and down hugging every fan that was near me. When Jim Leyland hugged him on the field in front of the 40,684 fans, I think I even shed a tear. It was pandemonium at Comerica Park, and it was all thanks to the unlikely hero, Don Kelly.
From his one time pitching appearance, to his many highlight real defensive plays, Don Kelly played the unlikely hero in many random situations. He set an example for young baseball players everywhere by working hard and battling to stay in the pros, despite never being the most talented player. Despite being cut multiple times by the Tigers, he always persevered and made it back. He even indirectly helped me through high school baseball, as I worked hard four years for a chance, and finally made the varsity roster my senior year.
At Tigerfest in 2014, I was walking around the press box when I ran into Donnie. I was honest to god never more star struck in my entire life. I was wearing my Don Kelly shirsey, and he gladly signed it on my back and signed a baseball I was carrying. I told him he was my hero, and he gave that statement an awkward chuckle. Today, that shirsey is framed in my room, with the signed baseball right below it. Someday I'll get to explain to my (future) kids why I have a framed autographed shirsey for a random Tigers' back up, but for now it's a visual reminder of getting to meet my childhood hero. It was the coolest moment of my life, and I'll always be grateful for it
It's with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to Don Kelly. You've given me personally, and many Tigers' fans an abnormal amount of inspiration for being the twenty-fifth man on the roster for the last six years. Thank you for your class and professionalism. Thank you for your heart and hustle. Thank you for a plethora of awesome internet memes based around you. Thank you for not kicking Verlander's ass when he lit your shoe on fire. Thank you for your unlikely heroics on the field, and your genuine attitude off of it. You're the one replacement level player that can never be replaced.