Tigers super-sub Don Kelly positions himself for success

DETROIT — Lou Laslo saw a shortstop.

He saw the tall, lanky frame. The foot speed, making plays to his left and plays to his right. The instincts, always fielding the ball on a clean hop. And he saw the arm, “a cannon,” he said, throwing out runners from the hole with ease.

Laslo first saw him at a pro-style workout at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, then at a bunch of games at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and then, he decided, he was going to follow this kid around to games in Ohio.

“I liked his body,” the longtime scout said. “He had some of those tools that we look at, he seemed like a pretty good team player, and he showed outstanding makeup on the field.”

But Don Kelly never saw him.

“There were some scouts that I talked to that I knew had interest,” said Kelly, 33. “But the Tigers weren’t one of them.”

He thought he was going to the Angels.

Instead, he went to the Tigers in the eighth round of the 2001 draft.

Then he went back home to Pittsburgh, to Arizona, to a life in the minors and back to Detroit, a place he now refers to as “home,” where he’s playing his fifth season as the Tigers’ do-it-all utilityman.

But Kelly wouldn’t have been sitting in the dugout at Comerica Park on Sunday morning if it wasn’t for his faith, family and flexibility.

“My faith in Jesus Christ, I think, is the biggest thing. That’s my rock, and to have my wife and family’s support is huge,” said Kelly, whose wife, Carrie, is the sister of Pirates second baseman Neil Walker. “I believe that everything happens for a reason and that you’re in a certain place at a certain time.”

The first place he needed to be was in the batter’s box.

During his junior year of high school, Al Liberi watched an offenseless Kelly. Literally.

“He was only playing defense,” the former Point Park hitting coach said. “He was a really good athlete, but he just wasn’t hitting.”

So Liberi taught Kelly how to hit.

“He had all the tools,” he said. “All I did was give him a really efficient swing that he could play and use in the major leagues.”

And when it was time to pick a college, Kelly stuck with his hitting coach and chose Point Park, a NAIA school in downtown Pittsburgh, over Division I schools West Virginia and Duquesne.

“It was probably the biggest decision that I had to make and the best decision that I ever made,” said Kelly, who was a .400 hitter in college.

“When I brought him in here as a freshman, I told my head coach that Donnie will be a major leaguer,” Liberi said. “When I met him and he lit up the room, I knew. He could run, he could throw, he could hit. You just knew.”

Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila knows.

Kelly is a left-handed hitter and can be a matchup man off the bench.

“That’s probably the most important thing,” Avila said.

He can play every position. This season, he has played three or more games at six positions, not to mention seven games as the designated hitter.

“He’s the most versatile guy we have on the team,” Avila said.

Kelly doesn’t strike out much and is the only Tiger with more walks (24) than strikeouts (20).

“It’s a very hard thing to do when you don’t play every day,” Avila said.

And he wins.

“He completes a winning team,” Avila said.

But those four things can’t keep Kelly from being manager Jim Leyland’s biggest lineup problem, according to (insert sports radio caller here).

Well, (insert sport radio caller here), Liberi has the answer for you.

“This kid is a winner,” Liberi said. “You give me nine Donnie Kellys on the field and you’re going to win. He comes to play every day. He gets after it.”

He won a state championship his senior year in high school at Mt. Lebanon. He won a collegiate summer league championship a few years later, and in 2006 was part of Toledo’s International League championship team.

“It really comes down to winning,” Kelly said. “Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to play on winning teams.”

And in the off-season, despite hitting .186 last season, winning teams were after him, with offers from the Giants, Reds, Nationals and Marlins.

“It could’ve been easy for me to say I need a fresh start, I want to go somewhere else and put Detroit behind me just for a fresh start,” he said. “But when you look at this team and the opportunity that we have to win the World Series, that’s what it’s all about.”

Back then, Laslo, who retired as a scout in 2002, had two recommendations for the Tigers.

“My recommendation was to sign him,” he said. “And I recommended that I would keep him at shortstop until he works himself out of the position. You know, when he couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Twelve years later, Kelly still hasn’t worked himself off the position.

If he had to, he said, he still could play there.

“I’m not going to be Jose Iglesias or anything,” he joked. “But I could definitely go over there and play.”

He credits the years playing shortstop for developing the ability to play all over the diamond.

“It was the biggest thing for me,” he said. “You know everything that’s going on at every other position and, besides catcher, it’s the most involved position.”

Of the approximately 50 players Laslo signed, Kelly is the only one who was a consistent major leaguer and the only one still playing.

“Every time I see him play or talk to people, I say, ‘Hey, that’s the kid I signed,’ ” he said. “He’s the last one standing.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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