|ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
|Perhaps the highlight of Don Kelly's season came when he hit a solo home run in the first inning of Game 5 of the Division Series against the Yankees.|
“By virtue of both genetics and his blue-collar roots, Kelly was born to be a baseball player. He grew up in the Mt. Lebanon section of Pittsburgh and rooted for the great Pirates teams featuring Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. Andy Van Slyke was Kelly's favorite player, and he has vivid memories of a younger Jim Leyland running the show. "I remember him coming out of the dugout and getting in an umpire's face, and then jumping Bonds one year in spring training," Kelly said. "He still has the same fire now. He's a lovable guy with a huge heart who just wants to win. That's the bottom line with him." Like Leyland, Kelly bears emotional scars from the 1992 season, when Atlanta's Francisco Cabrera singled in Sid Bream with the winning run to eliminate the Pirates in Game 7 of the NLCS. Kelly had a chance to meet his tormentor several years ago when Cabrera was working as a minor league coach in the Detroit organization. "I told him, 'You ruined my childhood,'" Kelly said, laughing. The Tigers selected Kelly in the eighth round of the 2001 draft out of Point Park (Pa.) University, and he eventually drifted to the Pittsburgh and Arizona organizations as a minor league free agent before Tigers assistant GM Al Avila brought him back to Detroit in 2009. Tigers coach Gene Lamont, who has been with Leyland since the Pittsburgh days, considers Kelly a better player than Cangelosi and Wehner because of his arm, speed, power and assorted other baseball skills. "He can definitely hit a fastball," Avila said. "And I think he's learned this role, whether it's pinch-hitting or playing part-time or whatever. He studies the pitchers, and he's a more intelligent player now." By all accounts, Kelly is humble, earnest and blessed with a love for the game that runs deep. He's married to the former Carrie Walker, sister of Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, and they have two little boys. The oldest, Brett, is only 2, but is already cultivating a picture-perfect swing. "Every morning when he wakes up, he wants to play 'hits,'" Kelly said. "That's what he calls it." Dad has made some significant strides of his own recently. Kelly hit .321 with a .585 slugging percentage in September, when the Tigers pulled away to win the AL Central by 15 games. Leyland started him in right field in Game 4 of the Division Series, and Kelly appeared to have a bases-clearing double or triple in his pocket until Curtis Granderson robbed him with a diving catch in center field. Undaunted, Kelly made the most of a starting opportunity in the climactic Game 5. He hit a breaking ball from Nova over the right-field fence in the first inning and experienced the thrill of a home run trot at Yankee Stadium in October. "It was special," Kelly said. "I can remember going around second base, and the only thing I could hear was our family section going nuts behind our dugout." It was a memory to last a lifetime, but baseball has a funny way of changing the script on the fly. Thanks to all those injuries in the Detroit outfield, Kelly still has a chance to create some new memories this October.
Guys like Donnie Kelly they're always the underdog. They want it so bad. They're not great, but they're good enough, and they're always looking for jobs. I've always had a soft spot for guys like that.” -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.