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Don Kelly, now the Houston Astros' first-base coach, met with the media before Monday night's game against the Tigers. Tony Paul, The Detroit News

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Detroit — It wasn't just Justin Verlander who returned to Detroit this week.

So did DKB — Donnie Kelly Baby.

Kelly, a longtime utility player on some of those contending Tigers teams from 2009-14, was back in town as the first-base coach of the Houston Astros. It's his first official trip back to Comerica Park since he retired after the 2016 season.

And the memories, oh, they were strong.

"We had some great times," Kelly said from the visitor's dugout the other day, before the start of the three-game Tigers-Astros series. "We obviously fell a little short, and that's disappointing, but you can also look back on it and have great memories.

"But you're always kicking yourself that you were that close."

In the pecking order of talented players on those good Tigers teams, Kelly, of course, was well down the list. He was a grinder, a light-hitting string bean whose value was in his versatility — he could play all over the diamond, even having pitched in one game, and caught in another.

He had his share of moments, to be sure, like that big home run in the 2011 ALDS victory over the New York Yankees.

Mostly, though, he was a 25th guy — yet, he really resonated with the Tigers' fan base, which during a spring game in Lakeland this year gave him a nice ovation, and then gave him a modest one before Monday's series opener.

He had a nickname, for crissakes — DKB, first coined by Tigers radio man Jim Price. What 25th guy gets a nickname?

"That was really cool, and it still is," Kelly said. "Being a hard-nose blue-collar-type guy (from Pittsburgh) resonated with the city, and they appreciated it.

"You give it everything you go, and I think they appreciate that."

Jim Leyland sure did.

Leyland, the fellow Pittsburgh guy who was the Tigers' manager from 2006-13, always liked Kelly — perhaps because Kelly reminded Leyland of the type of player he was.

Kelly shudders to think of what his career would've been without Leyland in his corner. As it was, he played parts of nine seasons in the majors.

"Oh man, completely different," Kelly said. "He valued what I brought, what other guys in that role brought to winning teams. I think sometimes, the unsung part is something that can be very valuable."

Kelly's career took him from Detroit to Pittsburgh to Arizona, and then back to Detroit, before he finished his career with Miami.

It was when the Arizona Diamondbacks signed him as a minor-league free agent in November 2007 that, years later, led to his current job.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch was Arizona's farm director at the time, and he knew this offseason that Kelly was ready to start a coaching career — after a brief dip in scouting.

"Just got to know him, his baseball IQ and how much he loves the game and how much he loves the players," Hinch said. "For Donnie, I wanted somebody that was player-friendly that was very relatable to the players. I wanted somebody that would invest time and energy into the smaller parts of the games, intricacies of base-running and leads, secondary leads, primary leads.

"He wanted to start his coaching career, and I knew that."

Kelly, 39 but still with the baby face of a man 10 years younger, is enjoying being back in uniform — and it doesn't hurt that it's with the 2017 World Series champions, who are a favorite to contend for another crown in 2019.

In February 2017, his first year of retirement as a player, he joined the Tigers as a scout.

It was a good move, he said, seeing the game from another perspective.

Leyland also helped him get adjusted to that role, Kelly said.

"He just said when you go look at these players, do you want them playing for you or do you want them playing against you," Kelly said with a laugh. "He's given me so much advice over the years, and playing for him, I was blessed."

Kelly, like most former players who get into coaching, has a desire to maybe manage one day, though he's not thinking about that now.

He's just a few months into his coaching career, after all.

And he's still getting acquainted to that — and he's still learning. You're always learning.

"Always," he said. "Anytime you go to a game, you're always learning. You can never say you know everything about baseball."

Kelly was an eighth-round pick by the Tigers out of Point Park University in 2001 who made his debut with the Pirates before rejoining the Tigers in 2009.

In his nine years, he played 584 games at all nine positions, and the lanky left-handed hitter hit .230 with 23 home runs and 98 RBIs. That's an OK season's worth of production for, say, Miguel Cabrera, yet Kelly still found his way into the fray in Detroit — to the confusion of some Tigers fans, and the delight of others.

He also played in 24 playoff games from 2011-14, including two World Series games.

Those contending days are over in Detroit, for the foreseeable future. The game between the Astros and Tigers was painfully evident through two games this week.

But Kelly, the scout, has some good news for Tigers fans — one more gift to a fan base that embraced DKB.

"Being in the scouting department the last couple years, I knew," Kelly said of this downturn. "It's the ebb and flow of how teams go.

"But what they've built in the minor leagues, with the arms and some of the position guys, there's a future there."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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