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Detroit Tigers: Is Don Kelly Baseball's Most Useful 25th Man?

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Detroit Tigers: Is Don Kelly Baseball's Most Useful 25th Man?
Leon Halip/Getty Images

He is the quintessential jack of all trades, master of none.

Getting rid of him would be like letting nine mediocre players walk away. But he’s open-minded; he’ll try anything once—and he has.

Don Kelly has done it all on the baseball diamond. He just hasn’t done it all that well.

Ah, but what would baseball be without the Don Kelly's of the world?

Someone has to be the 25th man on a 25-man roster. Kelly has spent his entire big league career looking over his shoulder and seeing no one behind him.

It’s been a baseball life lived on the edge...of extinction.

Kelly, the Tigers designated sitter, has been hanging on to his big league job by a thread for so long that it defies physics.

The Tigers drafted him in the eighth round of the 2001 amateur draft. Little did they know, it would be like drafting a boomerang. Every time the Tigers tried to throw Don Kelly away, he kept flying back to them.

Kelly meandered his way through the Tigers farm system, like a rat in a maze, looking for the cheese. He started as a shortstop, but that soon proved to be as significant as saying a chameleon started green.

In the minors, Kelly switched from third base, then second, then first and finally back to third base again. He was threatening to rewrite Abbott and Costello’s act...all by himself.

He could hit a little, but he mainly earned praise because he didn’t strikeout too much. He could also wear more gloves than a room full of jewel thieves.

Kelly made his painstaking journey to AAA Toledo by 2005, one step from "the show." He was 25-years-old, and usually, by that age, if a player hasn’t made it to the bigs yet, he is considered a never-will-be.

In 2006, at age 26, Kelly again showed up to spring training in Lakeland, gloves in hand. He almost made the Tigers but was sent back to Toledo, a victim of that cliché known as the numbers game.

That’s when the Tigers made their first of many attempts to get rid of Kelly.

They lopped him off the 40-man roster after the 2006 season. His hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, who never met a sad-sack they didn’t like, signed Kelly in December.

With the Pirates, Kelly finally found a big league roster he could crack out of in spring training. He made the team in 2007, managing 27 at-bats. He was a 27-year-old rookie, which is nothing more than being a 14-year-old second grader. After the season, the Pirates cut him.

The Arizona Diamondbacks picked him up, and Kelly played AAA ball for them for the entire 2008 season. Arizona then let him become a free agent.

The suckers they are, the Tigers took another shot on Kelly, signing him to a minor league contract in early 2009, which is nearly eight years after he was drafted.

Kelly didn’t make the team out of spring training, naturally.

But on June 11, 2009, the Tigers needed a replacement for outfielder Clete Thomas and summoned Kelly, who, by this time, had moved from the infield to the outfield.

Kelly’s first game for the Tigers came against the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is one of the three big league teams that had given up on him. In his second game as a Tiger, Kelly knocked in two runs with a single and double.

By this time, Kelly’s glove collection grew to include a first baseman’s and an outfielder’s, in addition to all his infield leather.

Kelly went to spring training in 2010 without a guaranteed job, as usual, but for his first time as a Tiger, Kelly broke camp with the big club. He was the 25th man—saved from the minors by his assortment of gloves.

His bat? Not such an attraction. But how many teams look for offense from their “utility” man?

Still, it’s a treat to watch the left-handed hitting Kelly in the batter’s box. He has a body that looks like a pair of lawn shears—all legs, which he draws further attention to by wearing his socks like knickers to his knees. His shoulders look like he stuffed two grapefruits under his jersey.

At 33, Kelly still looks like a kid. His cheeks are rosy, and he has a perpetual “aw, shucks” smirk on his face. He looks like he should work for a utility company instead of being a utility player for an MLB team.

Kelly was the model of consistency in 2010 and 2011, batting .245 and .244 respectively. Manager Jim Leyland used Kelly wherever he could—literally. In 2011, Kelly completed his clean sweep of the diamond by pitching and catching within two weeks of each other.

Kelly faced one batter in a game against the Mets, Jerry Hairston Jr., and retired him on five pitches, coaxing a fly ball with a curve ball—a curve ball!

You can have your Babe Ruth. Did the Babe have a career ERA of 0.00?

Less than two weeks later, Kelly came in to catch after Victor Martinez left with an injury and spent six innings behind the plate. Babe never did that, either.

In the 2011 ALDS, in the deciding Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, Kelly found himself in the starting lineup. No doubt he had someone pinch him as he read the lineup card taped to the wall before the game. Folks watching at home probably had a more violent reaction.

You see, as unassuming as Kelly is with all of his flexibility and his nice guy attitude, Tigers fans still have a tenuous relationship with him. They don’t seem to mind him being on the team, as long as he doesn’t play.

And to play in Game 5 of the ALDS against the Yankees? Heaven forbid!

Yet, there Kelly was—the human lawn shears standing in the box against Yankees pitcher Ivan Nova in the first inning. The Tigers had a chance to eliminate the Yankees in Game 4 in Detroit but failed. No one gave them a shot to KO the Yankees in the Bronx.

Kelly swung at a Nova pitch with his all arms, a less-than-textbook swing, and drove the baseball over the right field wall to give the Tigers a fragile but important 1-0 lead. The Tigers went on to win the game and the series.

Take that Don Kelly haters!

In 2012, Kelly lost what little luster he had. He slumped to a batting average below .200 for the season, which fanned the flames of the fans’ furor.

In early August, the Tigers tried to get rid of Kelly again. They designated him for assignment—a fancy way of saying, “Hit the bricks, kid.” As a result, Kelly was lopped off the 40-man roster. A week later, he cleared waivers—apparently no team wanted a nine-glove guy with a career BA of .235—and he was sent to AAA Toledo, rather than accept his release.

A month later, when the rosters expanded, Kelly was back. He was like one of those horror movie monsters that you think had been killed. Amazingly, Leyland put Kelly on the playoff roster and wouldn’t you know it...Kelly hit a walk-off sacrifice fly to win Game 2 of the ALDS. It was a script that even a B-movie producer would have shucked into the trash.

The Tigers still weren’t done trying to get rid of Kelly. After last season, they cut him again, and he cleared waivers...again. In January 2013, he re-signed with the Tigers...again. It was like the Yankees relationship with Billy Martin.

Kelly again went to spring training last February without a guarantee of a job, but he apparently likes it that way. Kelly played his way onto the 25-man squad that went north out of Florida.

Already this season, Kelly, in his usual duty, has come through with some clutch hitting and defense. He stole a home run in Comerica Park with a catch over the fence that rivaled anything Al Kaline ever did.

After that catch, the TV cameras caught Kelly. He had that “Aw, shucks” look on his face. As usual.

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