ARLINGTON, Texas -- Detroit manager Jim Leyland is a staunch advocate for all his players. But when it's time for the skipper to shed the crusty facade and get in touch with his innermost feelings, some Tigers are more equal than others.
Earlier in his managerial career, Leyland grew fond of overachieving Pittsburgh Pirates like John Wehner and John Cangelosi and took them with him to his next job in Florida. Now the mantle of designated "Leyland guy" belongs to Don Kelly, a versatile utility man who has appeared at every position over 287 major league games. Kelly evokes a groundswell of emotion in Leyland that goes beyond what you'd expect from a player with a .648 career OPS.
It was readily apparent in the deciding game of the American League Division Series, when Kelly homered off Ivan Nova to help Detroit advance to the next round. After the game, Leyland reflected on the moment, and his eyes welled with tears and there was a tremble in his throat.
"Guys like Donnie Kelly and John Wehner and Cangelosi they're always the underdog," Leyland said Saturday. "They want it so bad. They're not great, but they're good enough, and they're always looking for jobs. I've always had a soft spot for guys like that."
Kelly, 31, went from valuable role player to pivotal figure in this series in the time it took the Tigers to assess their latest medical report. The Detroit outfield, already hurt by the loss of Brennan Boesch to a season-ending injury to his right thumb in August, is suddenly a portrait in attrition. Delmon Young is limited in the American League Championship series because of a strained left oblique, and on Saturday Magglio Ordonez re-aggravated an injury to his right ankle to the extent that he's done for the season.
As a lefty hitter, Kelly was destined to see sporadic action in the series. It was a given, for example, that he would start Game 3 against Texas righty Colby Lewis. Now, given the rampant carnage on the Detroit roster, who knows? The only certainty is, whatever the Tigers ask of him, Kelly will be ready.
"He would probably mow my lawn if I asked him," Leyland said.
Kelly's versatility knows no bounds. On June 29, he made his major league pitching debut -- retiring Mets outfielder Scott Hairston on a fly ball in the ninth inning of a 16-9 Tigers loss. Kelly pumped in two straight 86 mph fastballs before retiring Hairston on a 71 mph curve.
Three days later, Kelly showed up at the other end of a battery. During spring training, Leyland had told him to be ready for the role of emergency catcher behind Alex Avila and Victor Martinez. So Kelly, who had never caught in his life, went down to the bullpen, donned the chest protector and shin guards and caught pitchers on the side in the Grapefruit League to acclimate himself to the role.
That grunt work paid off during a trip to San Francisco in early July. Martinez had taken a foul ball off his shoulder, the game was dragging on forever because of a rain delay, and Leyland didn't want to use Avila because there was a matinee on tap the next day. So Kelly entered the game with the Tigers trailing by double figures and caught Ryan Perry, David Purcey and Lester Oliveros for six innings in a 15-3 loss to the Giants.
Guys like Donnie Kelly they're always the underdog. They want it so bad. They're not great, but they're good enough, and they're always looking for jobs. I've always had a soft spot for guys like that.
”-- Tigers manager Jim Leyland
By virtue of both genetics and his blue-collar roots, Kelly was born to be a baseball player. He grew up in the Mt. Lebanon section of Pittsburgh and rooted for the great Pirates teams featuring Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. Andy Van Slyke was Kelly's favorite player, and he has vivid memories of a younger Jim Leyland running the show.
"I remember him coming out of the dugout and getting in an umpire's face, and then jumping Bonds one year in spring training," Kelly said. "He still has the same fire now. He's a lovable guy with a huge heart who just wants to win. That's the bottom line with him."
Like Leyland, Kelly bears emotional scars from the 1992 season, when Atlanta's Francisco Cabrera singled in Sid Bream with the winning run to eliminate the Pirates in Game 7 of the NLCS. Kelly had a chance to meet his tormentor several years ago when Cabrera was working as a minor league coach in the Detroit organization.
"I told him, 'You ruined my childhood,'" Kelly said, laughing.
The Tigers selected Kelly in the eighth round of the 2001 draft out of Point Park (Pa.) University, and he eventually drifted to the Pittsburgh and Arizona organizations as a minor league free agent before Tigers assistant GM Al Avila brought him back to Detroit in 2009. Tigers coach Gene Lamont, who has been with Leyland since the Pittsburgh days, considers Kelly a better player than Cangelosi and Wehner because of his arm, speed, power and assorted other baseball skills.
"He can definitely hit a fastball," Avila said. "And I think he's learned this role, whether it's pinch-hitting or playing part-time or whatever. He studies the pitchers, and he's a more intelligent player now."
By all accounts, Kelly is humble, earnest and blessed with a love for the game that runs deep. He's married to the former Carrie Walker, sister of Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, and they have two little boys. The oldest, Brett, is only 2, but is already cultivating a picture-perfect swing.
"Every morning when he wakes up, he wants to play 'hits,'" Kelly said. "That's what he calls it."
Dad has made some significant strides of his own recently. Kelly hit .321 with a .585 slugging percentage in September, when the Tigers pulled away to win the AL Central by 15 games. Leyland started him in right field in Game 4 of the Division Series, and Kelly appeared to have a bases-clearing double or triple in his pocket until Curtis Granderson robbed him with a diving catch in center field.
Undaunted, Kelly made the most of a starting opportunity in the climactic Game 5. He hit a breaking ball from Nova over the right-field fence in the first inning and experienced the thrill of a home run trot at Yankee Stadium in October.
"It was special," Kelly said. "I can remember going around second base, and the only thing I could hear was our family section going nuts behind our dugout."
It was a memory to last a lifetime, but baseball has a funny way of changing the script on the fly. Thanks to all those injuries in the Detroit outfield, Kelly still has a chance to create some new memories this October.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.