Spring Training: Mt. Lebanon native Kelly is making good impression on Tracy

Infielder's intangibles striking

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Don Kelly last spring came this close to making the opening day roster of a team that played in the World Series in October.

Think maybe he has a chance to make the Pirates' opening day roster this spring?

"He's a player you like to take a long look at," Pirates manager Jim Tracy conceded. "I haven't seen anything thus far I don't like."

Detroit manager Jim Leyland felt pretty much the same last spring.

"A fantastic kid," Leyland said about Kelly. "They don't come any better than him. He's a left-handed hitting infielder, and I've always liked infielders who hit left-handed, so you could give a right-handed guy a day off."

However, Kelly was sent to the Tigers' minor-league system in the team's last roster cut before the season began.

"When push came to shove, he ran into a numbers game," Leyland said.

Thus, Kelly, a standout at Mt. Lebanon High School and Point Park, returned to the minor leagues, where he'd spent the previous five seasons.

He struggled with Class AAA Toledo, hitting a career-low .228, and eventually finished the season with Erie, his fourth stint with the Tigers' Class AA affiliate. The club then removed Kelly from its 40-man roster last fall, making him a minor-league free agent. He signed with the Pirates Nov. 16.

"I would have loved to have made [the Tigers]," Kelly said. "It just didn't work out the way I would have liked.

"But the Lord has a plan for you and you're presented with opportunities, and I have another one this year. You just have to go out and play."

He has hit solidly this spring, which is fine. But if he's going to make the Pirates' opening-day roster, it will be because he has demonstrated the ability to play at least four positions adeptly, which has been the case, so far.

"He 100 percent knows how to play the game," Tracy said. "He has a lot of energy and a very unselfish approach to the game. That he hits left-handed is a plus. He's a winning player who can help create a winning atmosphere."

It has been 14 consecutive seasons since the Pirates last had a winning season. Or since Kelly was 12.

He remembers vividly the teams of the early 1990s that won three consecutive division championships, were managed by Leyland and featured Andy Van Slyke, Don Slaught, Lloyd McClendon and Rafael Belliard. And Gene Lamont coached on those teams and later managed the Pirates.

All those men were coaches with the Tigers last season.

"Awesome," Kelly said. "It was a great experience being around those guys and learning from the guys I grew up watching."

The Tigers plucked Kelly in the eighth round in the 2001 draft, and he made steady progress through their system, reaching Toledo in '05.

Trent Jewett, who manages the Pirates' Class AAA Indianapolis affiliate in the International League, knows Kelly's abilities well.

"The first thing I think of is versatility and his quiet approach to the game. As a manager, he allows you to do a lot of things because he can do a lot of things.

"He's a guy you didn't necessarily worry about capping off a rally, but being right in the middle of it," Jewett said. "He's going to put a good at-bat on whoever his opponent is.

"You're very comfortable with him and the fact you know he's thoughtful and prepared. Those things are comforting as a manager. I would think wherever he is, that's probably the feeling he gives a manager."

Kelly would love for that manager this season to be Tracy.

"It would be a dream come true," Kelly said. "Growing up a Pirate fan, it's every little kid's dream in Pittsburgh to be able to play for the Pirates. It's our job as players to get the winning tradition back -- to go back to Pittsburgh and start winning so those young kids coming up now can experience what I was able to when I was younger."

Kelly, someday, could be on the PNC Park field with his brother-in-law, Neil Walker, the Pirates' top pick out of Pine-Richland High School in 2004.

"That was exciting," Kelly said of Walker being a first-round pick. "It was real neat. It was great for the Pirates to be able to get him."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Infielder Don Kelly fields a ground ball during infield practice.
Click photo for larger image.
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