Pirates hire Kelly as bench coach

December 7th, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- Don Kelly has always been a fan of the Pirates. He was born in Butler, Pa., attended Mt. Lebanon High School and Point Park University, made his Major League debut for his hometown team in 2007 and still gets chills when he thinks about watching the 2013 National League Wild Card Game.

Next season, Kelly will return to the dugout as the Pirates’ bench coach under new manager Derek Shelton. Pittsburgh hired Kelly on Saturday and brought further clarity to the composition of Shelton’s coaching staff by also retaining hitting coach Rick Eckstein, third-base coach Joey Cora and assistant pitching coach Justin Meccage. Eckstein and Cora will return in the same positions, while Meccage’s role in 2020 has not yet been determined.

The 39-year-old Kelly, meanwhile, received a promotion and a chance to coach close to home after spending last season as the Astros’ first-base coach. It all came together quickly, too, as the Pirates asked the Astros for permission to interview Kelly on Tuesday and finalized the hire on Saturday afternoon.

"It was humbling, man,” Kelly said in a phone interview. “To grow up a Pirates fan -- made my Major League debut with the Pirates -- to be able to come back as a bench coach and dig in and jump on board, it really is exciting for my family and me.”

Kelly spent parts of nine seasons in the Majors as a super-utility man, with the rare claim to fame of having played all nine positions. The Tigers drafted him in the eighth round in 2001, and he made his debut with the Pirates in Houston on April 2, 2007. He played for manager Jim Leyland in Detroit from 2009-13 and for the Brad Ausmus-led Tigers in ’14. He spent the final two years of his playing career with the Marlins, then returned to the Tigers as a professional scout from 2017-18.

Viewed by many as a future manager, Kelly joined the American League champion Astros' coaching staff last November.

“To be able to do it at home is awesome, but I can’t say enough about AJ Hinch and Joe Espada in Houston. They really took me under their wing and taught me a lot last year,” Kelly said. “They really helped me a ton with my first year of coaching, but also teaching me things and kind of preparing me for this role.”

Kelly said his children were “smiling ear-to-ear” when they heard their dad will get to coach in Pittsburgh next year, remaining in their home north of the city, and his wife, Carrie -- the sister of former Pirates second baseman Neil Walker -- was just as excited.

Kelly interviewed with Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington, though he hasn’t worked with either in the past. He said he respected Cherington from afar for the work he did with the Red Sox and, more recently, the Blue Jays’ Minor League system. He also knew Shelton from across the field during his previous stops as a hitting coach, quality control coach and, most recently, bench coach in Minnesota.

Kelly was even more impressed after sitting down to talk with them.

“You can see the authenticity -- they’re genuine -- the passion and the vision that they have,” Kelly said. “I’m just really excited to be on board and coming in.”

The Pirates’ coaching staff is not yet complete, however. They answered one big question by retaining Eckstein, a forward-thinking hitting coach who worked well with Pittsburgh’s lineup last year. They also kept Cora, a well-regarded infield instructor who interviewed for higher-ranking jobs earlier this offseason, and Meccage, who spent the past two years as assistant pitching coach under Ray Searage.

But they still need a first-base coach to replace Kimera Bartee, a bullpen coach to replace Euclides Rojas, an assistant hitting coach to replace Jacob Cruz and another coach to replace Dave Jauss. They also need to name a pitching coach and an assistant pitching coach, with Meccage presumably filling one of those roles depending on whom they hire for the other spot.

One thing’s for sure: They successfully filled a key role, Shelton’s right-hand man, with someone who has a deep desire to see the Pirates succeed.

“Dude, I get chills thinking about 2013,” Kelly said. “To sit there and watch that game, I really do get chills. The energy you could feel from that Wild Card Game was just unbelievable. That’s Pittsburgh baseball. That’s what we’re going to be working toward.”