As a rule, I don’t think you should meet your heroes. Or, in general, you shouldn’t meet famous people that you like or admire. Most of the time, the reality of who they are would disappoint you. They’re regular people with regular people flaws and they just happen to excel at the one or two things that made them famous. It might be cool to see an actor in person, but being a good actor and being an interesting and/or decent person are unrelated things. The same is true for athletes, maybe even more often.
We don’t talk about it a lot anymore, but if our laws worked the way they ought to, Miguel Cabrera would be wrapping up a prison sentence right now instead of a Hall of Fame peak. There’s a pretty good chance a few guys on the team are mean to waiters and tip poorly. Some are probably disloyal to their friends. There’s probably a racist, a homophobe, and a misogynist or two. I’m not accusing anyone specifically or saying this with any specific knowledge. I’m just saying based on the number of guys in the room, there’s a good chance some of them are lousy people.
For that reason, I generally like to keep the image I have of the players separate from who they actually are. As long as no one’s committing violent crimes or doing anything unsavory in public, I just assume the players are only who we see on the screen. Put another way, I don’t spend a lot of time wondering what Nick Castellanos is like when he’s off the clock. It’s just not relevant to my life or my livelihood.
I remember one time, maybe it was during an in game interview or after he posted something on Twitter, but my wife looked at me and said, “I don’t think you and Justin [Verlander] would be friends in real life.” That’s probably true. Our only real area of overlap is baseball and Verlander cares about the game in a very traditional, competitive way that differs from the way I care about the game.
This is a really long way of saying that there are always exceptions. I care about a player’s public image because that’s the version of them that I see, so when a player says something stupid or disrespectful, I think less of them. Or when they carry themselves well, I think more of them. It’s part of the package, but I often don’t want to know what’s really behind the veneer.
I mean, imagine if you found out that Alex Avila was a jerk. Wouldn’t that suck? Avila’s probably a very nice guy but you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment if you try to find out.
I don’t expect anything from athletes except that they give an honest effort. I don’t get upset when they strikeout and it doesn’t bother me if they don’t give interesting interviews. You can keep to yourself and suck and I’ll probably still be a fan if I think you’re giving it your best.
But there are exceptions. Don Kelly is one of them.
Part of me appreciates Kelly because he’s a utility player (and not a great one) and I just happen to like utility players. I latch on to the versatile players. But Kelly transcends that. Kelly was a fan favorite because Kelly gets it in a way that virtually no professional athlete gets it.
I think Kelly gets a lot of love because he’s a genuinely nice guy and everyone can tell after talking to him or listening to him for thirty seconds. But I think the halo around Kelly is that he absolutely loves every second of being a professional baseball player and recognizes how insane it is that he’s even there in the first place. It’s almost as if he hasn’t been corrupted by something that always corrupts.
Put another way, after enough time in the show, every players starts to feel like being an MLB player is normal. That’s true in all parts of life. It’s human nature. When I first started writing about the game, it was surreal when people I admired would share and comment on my work. But after enough time, it stopped being a big deal when I got a job offer or a hat tip from someone with real credibility. That happens to all of us. The shine wears off given a long enough timeline.
But you watch Kelly play baseball and it hasn’t. That sense of joy and disbelief is what draws us to Don because it’s how we imagine we’d feel if we were suddenly given a chance to play ball for our favorite team. Kelly seems grateful and overjoyed for the chance to play and never seemed dissatisfied with his opportunity. He may have wanted to play better at times, but he never seemed like someone who was unhappy because he wasn’t getting more playing time or a more prestigious lineup spot.
Pro athletes won the genetic lottery. They worked hard to make it, but if not for an accident of birth, they’re selling insurance or bagging groceries. It’s not their fault they were blessed with the talent and they shouldn’t feel bad about it, but when you’ve always been gifted it’s hard to remember that you’ve lived a charmed life.
I don’t know if I’m making it up because I want to believe it, but I don’t think Kelly ever lost touch with the idea that it’s ridiculous that he plays baseball for his job. I don’t think the players owe it it to us to do that or anything, but I think the magnetism of Kelly is that he acts like what we think we would act like if we were somehow put into that situation.
He gets how amazing his life is and seems perfectly content to be the backup plan at every position.
It’s just a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training, but losing Kelly like this is the end of a weird, beautiful era in Detroit. Kelly was certainly not a good player, but it’s impossible not to love him for the way he carried himself all these years.
Jim Leyland once said that Donnie Kelly is everything that’s good about baseball. Regular readers know that Jim and I don’t always agree, but on this, we certainly do.