South Xtra: Injury keeps Kelly from hometown heroics
Tigers right fielder and Mt. Lebanon High School graduate Don Kelly tumbles into the stands last week in Detroit. Kelly was injured on a similar play the next day, forcing him to sit out the weekend's series against the Pirates at PNC Park.
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Don Kelly gingerly walked through the Detroit Tigers clubhouse Sunday afternoon after the completion of his team's win against the Pirates.
His left knee wrapped in ice, Kelly had missed out on a chance to play in his hometown this past weekend because of a knee contusion.
His batting average less than .200 and his team playing under .500, Kelly's injury added to circumstances that would have let him be forgiven for not being in the best of moods.
Instead, when a reporter he hardly knew approached him, his smile was as wide as his locker stall.
When he was asked about his college alma mater -- Point Park University -- he beamed even more.
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't like Kelly, who was born in Butler, graduated from Mt. Lebanon High School and now lives in the North Hills during the offseason.
"He's just a great kid," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "There's no better than him. Those All-American kids you talk about? He's one of them."
Kelly, 32, helped Mt. Lebanon win a PIAA Class AAA baseball title in 1998. Thirteen years later, he helped the Tigers win an American League Division Series against the New York Yankees with a home run in the deciding Game 5 at Yankee Stadium.
It was the most visible highlight of a major-league career for Kelly that has seen him become a regular member of the Tigers' roster. He has stuck with the team continuously since a September 2009 promotion as a "super-utility" player who literally has played every position on the field in the majors.
Kelly has 17 career home runs during the regular season, but it's the one homer that came in the playoffs that people most remember.
"What happened last year in Yankee Stadium, those are things that you make up in the backyard when you're a kid," Kelly said. "So to be able to do that on that stage, it was a lot of fun."
Kelly is married to the former Carrie Walker, sister of Pirates second baseman Neil Walker. Both Walkers are Pine-Richland High School graduates.
Kelly made his major-league debut with the Pirates in 2007, playing 25 games with his hometown team that season.
"I root for the Pirates 156 games this year," Kelly said.
His Tigers played the Pirates six times during the 162-game schedule.
Leyland, who managed the Pirates from 1986 through '96 and still maintains a Pittsburgh residence in the offseason, expressed regret that he couldn't get Kelly into the lineup for any of the three games his team played at PNC Park this past weekend.
Kelly's knee was injured while making the type of play that has endeared him to Leyland and his teammates. He made a running catch in the right-field corner in what ultimately was a 2-1 Detroit win against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Kelly tracked the ball to make the catch and slammed into a seating railing as a result. He still alertly got the ball into the infield, potentially saving a run. He would later leave the game, and was not cleared medically to be able to start for the series in Pittsburgh.
"He was banged up a little bit when he came in here," Leyland said Sunday. "I was hoping there was a spot to play him in front of the hometown, but it didn't work out."
Leyland instead gave Kelly the honor of delivering the pregame lineup card to the home plate umpire.
"It was just unfortunate that the day before we come back to Pittsburgh, I jam my knee into that fence," Kelly said. "It was hurting pretty good. I was available to go in if I needed to, but it just didn't work out."
Kelly was, however, proud to be able to participate in pregame recognition honoring the Point Park baseball team advancing to the NAIA World Series late last month.
Kelly hugged each of the players who were on the field for the event.
"That was awesome," he said. "They had a heck of a year and it was really nice of the Pirates to organize that today and honor them on the field, and it was great for me to be able to do that."
Kelly said he knows Pioneers coach Loren Torres and athletic director Dan Swalga well and that he and infielder Lee Bodnar hit together in the offseason. Kelly said he follows the team as much as he can.
"I haven't been able to get involved as much as I would like to -- I've got two young kids at home -- but as far as keeping in contact with them, yeah," Kelly said.
Kelly's versatility and positive presence have earned him regular work with Leyland's Tigers. He's hitting .234 throughout his tenure with Detroit despite a .187 average this season through Monday.
"When you get called up to the big leagues, it's a dream come true," Kelly said. "And it's harder to stay here once you get here.
"It's been a great situation here in Detroit. We got to go to the playoffs and had some success there, got to go to the ALCS. It was unbelievable. So hopefully the Pirates are working their way toward that."
First Published June 28, 2012 12:00 am