The most nondescript journeymen often make the best managers, from Bobby Cox to Terry Francona to Tony La Russa. They see the game from the sidelines, recognizing early in their careers that their best chance to stick will be as a coach rather than a player.
By this standard, Don Kelly has all of his bases covered. The Pirates bench coach and Red Sox managerial candidate didn't make his big-league debut until age 27 and didn't record more than 60 at-bats in a season until age 30, but that didn't stop him from carving out a nine-year career between Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Miami after being selected in the eighth round of the 2001 draft.
A true jack of all trades, Kelly played all nine positions during his career, including an emergency stint at catcher for one day in 2011, as well as retiring the only batter he faced during his lone pitching appearance that same season. He also batted in all nine spots in the order, delivering a home run out of the No. 2 hole that helped the Tigers beat the Yankees in the clinching Game 5 of the 2011 American League Division Series.
Those varied experiences as a utilityman who retired with a lifetime batting average of .230 laid the groundwork for a career in coaching that has landed the 40-year-old Kelly on the radar of Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom.
"There were some tough times during my career," Kelly told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in July. "There's a lot of things that you learn going through that, to be able to relate to guys and help them through similar tough situations playing the game. It's a hard game to play, and as we go out there to compete, just reminding guys that and getting them to focus on what they need to focus on in their preparation process to be able to have success during the games. It's something that I struggled with myself in the minor leagues and even in the big leagues coming up. It's those times that really build you for a role like this."
Because Kelly only retired in 2016, he can relate to today's player in ways that are uncommon even among the younger cohort of managers currently spreading across the game. He has followed a path from player to scout to Astros first base coach to Pirates bench coach that has him on the cusp of something bigger -- maybe even with the Red Sox.
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"Donnie's really smart," Pirates manager Derek Shelton told the Tribune-Review. "I think we're going to see a guy with a really high ceiling. He's smart. He asks good questions. He's organized. I think this is just the beginning of his career and what he's going to do and I'm really excited that he's the person that I'm asking daily questions to – and I know at times I mess with him, especially with you guys – but to state how much he means to me on a daily basis in terms of the conversations on everything we're doing and being able to bounce things off, it's extremely helpful because he is very thoughtful."