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Point Park alum Kelly completes career lap around Major League Baseball diamond

July 12, 2011

Kelly action 2 for NAIA
Point Park alum Don Kelly has now played all nine positions during his MLB career. Photo courtesy Detroit Tigers.

 

PITTSBURGH – Don Kelly, a former Point Park baseball player and a current member of the Detroit Tigers, has taken the meaning of versatility to a new level this season. Kelly, a utility man in his fourth year in the big leagues, has now played all nine positions during his Major League Baseball career after appearing as a catcher on July 2.

The strangest part for Kelly, 31, was that catcher was the final position that he needed to complete the career lap around the MLB diamond.

When he appeared as a center fielder for the first time on May 16, 2010 vs. the Boston Red Sox, Kelly was left with pitcher and catcher as the only spots left to play on the field.

When he was designated by manager Jim Leyland as Detroit’s emergency catcher just prior to spring training 2011, Kelly thought for sure his next-best chance to debut at a new position was behind the plate.

It turned out that Kelly ended up catching six innings in the Tigers’ 15-3 loss to the Giants on July 2, but that was not before making an even more unexpected appearance as a pitcher three days earlier.

With the Tigers trailing the N.Y. Mets, 16-9, with two outs in the top of the ninth, Kelly was brought on to pitch June 29. Pitching in an actual game for the first time since his teenage years, Kelly sported a fast ball that topped out at 86 miles per hour to work a 2-2 count against Scott Hairston. Kelly then broke off a 71-mile per hour breaking ball to induce a fly ball to center. Although Kelly was able to get the final out of the ninth versus the only batter he faced, the Tigers went on to lose, 16-9.

Just three days later, the Tigers found themselves trailing by double digits early in a game in which starting catcher Victor Martinez went down with an injury. Enter Kelly, who suited up with the catching gear to complete his career lineup cycle.

With the unique appearance as a both a pitcher and a catcher, Kelly is just the 55th player since 1901 to appear on the mound and behind the plate in the same season.

“It wasn’t something that I set out in my career to do – to play all nine positions,” said Kelly in a phone interview July 8. “When skipper talked to me in January about being the emergency catcher, I thought at the time that if I ever got into the game as a catcher that all I had to do was pitch to play all nine positions.

“I honestly thought it would happen the other way around – to play catcher and then maybe be lucky enough to pitch someday. I didn’t expect to be called in to pitch. And then to turn around and make my catching debut three days later was kind of crazy.”

Kelly, an NAIA All-American shortstop at Point Park from 1999-2001, started his lap around the MLB diamond as a middle infielder. Oddly enough, shortstop and second base are the only positions that his current utility role with the Tigers doesn’t cover.

Kelly’s role dictates that he is a backup at six positions – all three outfield stations, the corner infield spots and his newly learned emergency catcher assignment. Not only has he played all six of those spots during the 2011 season, his appearance on the mound gives him playing time at seven of the nine lineup slots in this year alone.

When he made his big league debut with his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007, he did so at second base. Kelly, who had made an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career, debuted as a second baseman on April 2, 2007 for the Pirates. On April 19 of that year, he played shortstop for the first time, and two days later he came on for the first time in right field. Kelly added left field to his resume for the Pirates on June 10, 2007, but after being sent down to the minors, he would not be in the big leagues again for two years.

Kelly made it back to the Major Leagues during the 2009 season, this time with the team that drafted him in the eighth round of the 2001 draft – the Detroit Tigers. When he played third base on June 27, 2009 for the Tigers, it was first time he played the hot corner. He debuted across the diamond as a fill-in for slugging first baseman Miguel Cabrera on Sept. 15, 2009.

Kelly made the second Opening Day Roster of his career with the Tigers in 2010. On May 16 of that year, he played center field for the first time. That gave him seven of the nine spots on the lineup card.

Kelly ended up staying with the Tigers for the entire 2010 season, and it was the first time he stayed in the majors all year. He made the Detroit roster again in 2011, and he has proven his worth the last two years. A big part of his value is his versatility to play all over the field.

After Kelly’s catching debut July 2, manager Jim Leyland said, “for a 25th man (on the roster), I wouldn’t rather have anybody in baseball than Donnie Kelly. Nobody.” After Kelly pitched on June 29, Leyland affirmed what was proven earlier that night saying that Kelly, “can do it all.”

Indeed with his trip around the big league diamond, Kelly has the unique claim to have played everywhere. His defense has been his best attribute as he has made several appearances on ESPN’s Top Plays and Web Gems. Those highlights have included everything from a diving stab at third base to rob Alex Rodriguez of extra bases at Yankee Stadium to a fine running catch to preserve the memorable, near-perfect game of Armando Gallaraga in the ninth inning.

At the plate, he is batting .245 with three homers and 11 RBIs so far in 2011. Although he is often called upon for defense, Kelly is a capable hitter. On July 7, Kelly hit a solo homer in the ninth inning to give the Tigers are 3-1 lead at Kansas City. Kelly was brought on as a defensive replacement but still provided the key insurance run in the 3-1 victory.

With his responsibilities around the diamond, Kelly’s pre-game preparation is sure to touch on all areas. Although, pitcher and catcher are probably not expected to happen too often.

“When I go to the ballpark, I prepare myself for the positions that I am most likely to play,” said Kelly, a Mt. Lebanon, Pa., native. “Pitcher and catcher are not part of my daily routine. I will go catch a bullpen session every now and then because of my emergency catcher role. But the pitching coach is now joking with me asking if I want to do pitching session in the bullpen, too.”

Kelly was inducted into Point Park’s Pioneer Athletic Hall of Fame on Oct. 10, 2010. On hand that day to support his induction was Detroit manager Jim Leyland. His .413 career batting average still ranks as the Point Park hitting record.