Outfielder Don Kelly of the Detroit Tigers delivers a pitch during the game against the New York Mets at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. The Mets defeated the Tigers 16-9. (Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
Oddly, that's one of only two positions he did not play this season as he became, almost literally, a man for all positions for the American League Central's champions.
Even his name, Don Kelly, speaks of anonymity. If you were going to invent a generic utility player, you'd call him "Don Kelly". Except you don't have to invent him, because he already exists. His baseball-reference page is sponsored by a CPA firm. All Kelly would need are some glasses and he could play that role, too.
Guys like Don Kelly don't usually get very much attention, even when they play in a League Championship Series. So we're going to give him some as the Tigers prepare to play Game 2 Monday afternoon in Texas.
The 2001 draft wasn't a very good one for Detroit. Their first four picks never played in the major leagues; in fact, just three players from that draft (Kelly, Jack Hannahan and Ryan Raburn) have played more than 100 major-league games. None is a star, and Kelly's minor-league numbers with the Tigers were so decidedly average that they didn't have a problem letting him go as a six-year free agent. He signed with the Pirates and made their 2007 Opening Day roster, but wound up back in Triple-A after never raising his batting average over the Mendoza Line.
He spent a year in the Diamondbacks organization and then was reacquired by Detroit prior to the 2009 season, when he finally played in major-league games for the organization that had drafted him eight years earlier. None of them was memorable.
This season, 21 different non-pitchers pitched in major-league games, the most in history. (One of them was Rick Ankiel, a former pitcher, so maybe the real number is 20. But I digress.) On June 29 at Comerica Park, the Tigers were losing an interleague affair to the Mets 16-9 with two out in the top of the ninth when Jim Leyland had apparently had enough of his pitching staff; he called on Kelly to take the mound.
Our intrepid eighth-round pick did not disappoint. He threw five pitches (three for strikes) and retired Scott Hairston on a fly ball to center field.
Kelly wound up playing every position except shortstop and second base during the 2011 season, and he's played both positions in previous seasons. Of course this is exceptionally rare, and most position players who have pitched and also played so many positions in a season (or a career) have done it in one game, as a stunt, like Scott Sheldon and Shane Halter in 2000. The only player who did something truly similar to Kelly by playing all positions during a season, but not in the same game, was Jose Oquendo in 1988. Oquendo has become a well-respected coach for the Cardinals. Perhaps a coaching career is in Kelly's future.
I wish I could tell you that Don Kelly heroically led his team to victory on that glorious day. Alas, he struck out. (The Tigers won anyway, 5-2.)
And then Jim Leyland decided to use this decidedly average player in an unusual spot in Game 5 of the division series against the Yankees -- third base, a position he'd played, but infrequently -- and bat him second against Ivan Nova. Kelly homered and helped his team win the game and the series.
So hats off to you, Don Kelly. Not a millionaire -- he's barely made that, combined, in his major league career -- and not a superstar, he's a guy who will help his team in any way they ask. Perhaps he'll help them win a game again before the ALCS ends.