Mt. Lebanon's Kelly takes his position in MLB history
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Don Kelly was stuck in the minor leagues, wondering if it was time to quit baseball.
He had a two-month stint with the Pirates in 2007, but in '08 he was back in the minors, where he already had spent parts of seven years. He and his wife were preparing for the birth of their son, Brett, and he thought briefly about changing careers.
He thought better of it.
Now, he has earned a distinction no other active major leaguer can claim.
Kelly has played all nine fielding positions in his career, a mark reached when he filled in at catcher July 2 for the Detroit Tigers.
"I'm a team guy," said Kelly, 31, a utility player with the Tigers. "I'm willing to do anything to help the team win."
Three days earlier, Kelly -- known to his friends as "Donnie" -- had made his pitching debut, retiring the only batter faced in a 16-9 Tigers loss. It was the second consecutive game in which the Tigers had given up more than 10 runs, and they were in desperate need of a pitcher.
Kelly knew, as a utility player, he might be called on to pitch at some point in a season. But he never spent any time working on his delivery.
"I wish you could have seen my warm-up pitches," he said. "I threw 11 pitches. I think I threw one of them for a strike."
The career feat marks quite a turnaround for a player many teams had determined was not good enough to play baseball at the highest level.
Some of those critics might have been on his own team.
When Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who once managed the Pirates, told Kelly he made the 2010 opening-day roster, he did not give this Point Park product a great vote of confidence.
"I don't know what I'm thinking," Leyland said, "but you made the team."
"Skip's awesome," Kelly said. "He shoots it straight."
Fourteen months later, not even the gruff Leyland could hide his pride in Kelly.
"There may be somebody more talented," Leyland said July 2, according to Tigers.com, "but for a 25th player [on the roster], I wouldn't rather have anybody in baseball than Donnie Kelly. Nobody."
Kelly has earned that respect through perseverance.
"Donnie worked, worked, worked," said Ed McCloskey, Kelly's baseball coach at Mt. Lebanon High School. "He was a mentally tough kid. He's very easy going, but he had that determination."
His career fielding cycle started in April '07, when he made his major league debut playing second base for the Pirates.
A few weeks later, he filled in at shortstop. Next came right field. Then, left field.
But midway through the '07 season, Kelly was designated for assignment after he struggled to hit. He returned to the minor leagues, where he had spent the past six years fighting for a spot on a major league roster.
He made stops in Indianapolis, Tucson and Toledo and worked hard at his new assignment. He eventually teamed with a hitting coach who helped him develop into a more potent hitter.
The Tigers called him back to the majors in June '09, and in Detroit, Kelly made his debut at third base. Toward the end of that season, he filled in at first base. He scratched center field off his list last season.
The came this spring, when Leyland made Kelly the team's emergency catcher.
But he got his chance on the mound before he got his chance behind the plate. He is the 55th player since 1901 to have played both battery positions in the same season.
"Pitcher and catcher are obviously the toughest two to get," Kelly said. "To get them both in the same week is pretty great."
The distinction is no surprise to Kelly's high school coach, who calls him a "great kid" and a "super, super human being."
"I asked him, 'Do you enjoy it?' " McCloskey said. "It's not that they're forcing him to play there. He loves it."
The McCloskey family had an early idea that Kelly was a versatile kid. As a fourth-grader, Kelly excelled in every academic subject, said teacher Carol McCloskey.
Kelly, who in '07 married the sister of Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, has managed to survive in the major leagues because of his versatility. His career batting average is .235, which rarely keeps any player in the majors for long. But through 214 career games, Kelly had committed just nine errors, posting a sublime .981 fielding percentage.
Yankees captain Derek Jeter, a five-time gold glove winner at shortstop, has a .976 career fielding percentage, by comparison.
Kelly graduated from Mt. Lebanon in '98 after leading the Blue Devils to a PIAA Class AAA championship his senior season.
He continued playing baseball at Point Park University, where his game only improved. His .413 career batting average still stands as a Point Park record. And it was good enough for professional teams to pay attention.
The Tigers drafted Kelly in the eighth round of the'01 amateur draft.
Ed McCloskey remembers watching Kelly play a Class AA minor league game in Altoona. He stayed after to talk with his former pupil.
"I said, 'Donnie, I remember telling the scouts you could play anywhere,' " McCloskey said. Kelly replied: "I'll even catch if I have to."
First Published July 16, 2011 12:00 am