By: Pete Bridge
Point Park News Service
Don Kelly may have been an NAIA All-American in his last year on the Point Park University baseball team in 2001, but he comically remembers practicing on the Mon Wharf with whiffle balls.
The Pittsburgh native relishes memories of being taken in the 2001 Major League Baseball draft by the Detroit Tigers, but seemed destined as a career minor leaguer until he debuted in the big leagues in 2007.
He has stuck as a utility player for the past five years, culminating when he scored a run in the American League Conference Series and hit a walk-off sacrifice fly in the American League Divisional Series.
“I might see some decent time in the outfield, it just depends really how things shake out and how far pitchers go into the game. I just need to stay prepared and do whatever it is to help the team win,” Kelly said before Game 1 of the World Series.
Kelly was born in Butler, Pa. before his family moved to Mount Lebanon. Kelly’s high school team won the Class AAA State Championship and he was recruited to play at Point Park. He had 45 RBIs in his final season and still holds the school’s record for best batting average at .413, which was accomplished in an alternative inner city realm.
“We practiced at the wharf with whiffle balls because our practices were in Butler which is a 45 minute drive. If you wanted to get it done, you really had to work your butt off to do it. It really helped drive me in getting to the big leagues,” Kelly added.
Kelly played in a total of 584 games as a minor leaguer before making his debut with his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates in 2007. In his minor league career, he racked up 613 hits and hit over .240 each of the six seasons.
The utility player has made a major league appearance at each position during his career. He has most recently seen playing time in the outfield for the Tigers. Kelly was hitting .186 and had 21 hits before he was optioned down to the AAA level. Manager Jim Leyland called Kelly back up to the team before the playoffs.
Kelly has not been starting the majority of the games but has made a big impact with his bat. He hit a game winning sacrifice fly in Game 2 of the American League Divisional Series against the Oakland Athletics. This play gave the Tigers a two game lead in a series which they eventually won 3-2.
“Before the inning started, I knew the situation that if it came down to it, they were going to make me be the guy to beat them. They weren’t going to let Cabrera or Prince (Fielder) beat them because those two might hit one out of the park,” Kelly said.
The Point Park baseball team clearly looks up to their only current major league alum who still maintains a relationship with players and coaches a decade after he was drafted. Current Point Park coach Loren Torres came to the school after Kelly already left, but has seen him many times throughout the years.
“He’s around as much as he possibly can be. He came to the alumni game a couple of years ago and a few guys last year worked out with him,” Torres said.
Lee Bodnar played for Point Park until last season and has worked out with Kelly between 10 and 15 times. Bodnar met Kelly before he made it to the major leagues and wanted to follow his footsteps at Point Park.
“He’s just a really nice guy, and he’d work out with anybody. I would hit with him and then we would start lifting at the same place,” Bodnar said.
Kelly still supports the baseball program at Point Park to this day. He sent the whole team necklaces and baseballs last year when the Pioneers advanced to the NAIA World Series.
“He’s always texting me saying congratulations or sending us quotes and I share them with the team,” Coach Torres said.
Bodnar appreciates the effort that Kelly makes to be involved with his alma mater.
“He’s just a regular Joe. He’s actually probably nicer than a normal person. He’s the person that everyone wants to be,” Bodnar said.
The 32-year-old is now trying to help the Tigers defeat the San Francisco Giants in any way that he can. Kelly will most likely see some pinch-hitting opportunities in the series which could provide a spark to the team much like his walk-off sacrifice fly did earlier in the playoffs.
“You can’t really go up there thinking about the situation that you’re involved with. You have to stay with your approach and keep it simple and wait for a pitch to hit. It’s easier said than done,” Kelly said.
The Tigers were defeated by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series, four games to none. Kelly was called into the action in Game 2 as he played as a defensive replacement in left field.
Article appeared in the Oct. 31 edition of The Globe, Point Park University’s independently-run newspaper