In praise of Don Kelly

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Almost every team has a Don Kelly. The guy who always hangs around. The guy who, at times, seems like a good luck charm. Or at least his manager thinks so. A guy who, based on his performance, probably has no objective business being on a big league roster, but dad gummit, he’s on that big league roster. Mostly because he’s a utility guy with good makeup, which is not nothing of course. But still: a lot of better performers don’t see as much time in the bigs as the Don Kelly types do. A lot of them don’t get nearly 1,200 plate appearances with a line of .232/.296/.335, no matter how many defensive positions they can play.

Keith Lockhart used to be that guy for the Braves. Kelly was that guy for Jim Leyland and the Tigers. Among a certain group of Tigers fans I know, he was always well-liked, though no one was deluded about his baseball prowess. Over time, he became referred to as “hero of the game, Don Kelly,” somewhat mockingly, but lovingly so. And hey, sometimes he really was the hero of the game. He was the ironic favorite of some but a legitimate favorite of a lot of people. Baseball seasons are long. Don Kelly types can make those long seasons a little fun here and there. And of course, managers like to have guys they can count on to show up, be professional and be guys they don’t have to worry about. Guys who can add some of those intangible things which baseball folks, I suspect, overrate, but non-baseball folks underrate and which, of course, non-baseball folks can’t really speak to with any authority.

I thought Don Kelly’s days as a Don Kelly type were over. The Tigers let him go after 2014 and he joined the Marlins. He only played two games for them last year, and only 12 in the minors. I’d be lying if I said I keep such close track of Don Kelly types to know what happened to him in 2015, but I assume he was hurt most of the year. This year he’s played 48 games at Triple-A, waiting for his chance. Today he got it, as the Marlins placed Justin Bour on the DL and called up Kelly. Kelly will start at first base against the Mets this afternoon.

Kelly is 36 and he’s hitting .223/.288/.273 at Triple-A. But he’s starting at first base for a major league baseball team tonight. Not because he’s a big offensive threat. But because he’s Don Kelly. He’s a pro who knows his way around a clubhouse and because his manager doesn’t have to worry about a Don Kelly type. That may not make a person who cares about how the Marlins fare tonight feel fantastic, but to an uninterested observer, there’s something comforting in that. There’s something nice about Don Kelly types hanging around. At least as long as they’re on someone else’s team.

But hey, there’s always a chance he’ll be the hero of the game. Baseball works like that sometimes.