TOM KELLY: A MINNESOTA INSTITUTION
Growing up in Minnesota during the late 80s and 90s you could count on three things: the winters would be cold, the Vikings' season would end with a disappointing playoff loss, and the Twins would be managed by Tom Kelly. On October 12, 2001 that all changed, Tom Kelly retired. Kelly had stayed with the Twins through eight straight losing seasons. He had been loyal to an organization that showed no commitment to winning. In 2001 the Twins finally began to turn things around, they posted an 85-77 record and finished in second place in the AL Central. Convential logic said Kelly would stay around to see the fruits of his hard work. He would stay to see his group of players mature into a possible pennant winner. But, he didn't - he retired leaving everyone asking one question - Why? Well the answer to that question is quite simple - Tom Kelly did everything his own way.
Being a Minnesota sports fan is not always easy. The Vikings are the NFL's equivalent to the Boston Red Sox. The Timberwolves, when they are not signing players to illegal contracts, can't get out of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. The states' first NHL team, the North Stars, bolted south and have been replaced by the expansion Wild. The University of Minnesota's basketball team has a major scandal every decade. It's football team - well, let's not go there. The Twins, however, have taken us to the top of the mountain - twice.
Tom Kelly's managerial career began late in the 1986 season when the team fired Ray Miller and handed the reigns over to the 36 year old Kelly on an 'interim' basis. He finished the season with a 12-11 record, but was not hired on a permanent basis until former Cubs skipper Jim Frey reportedly turned them down.
Going into the 1987 season not much was expected of the Twins. They did have a core of good young players - Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, and Tom Brunansky - and had acquired closer Jeff Readon in the offseason, but most experts had the Twins finishing in the bottom half of the American League's Western Division. What transpired during the 1987 season, however, remains a prominent part of Minnesota lore. The Twins, of course, won the World Series that year. They defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in a hard fought seven game series thanks, in part, to a raucous, homer-hanky waving Metodome crowd.
The Twins continued their success in 1988, but fell short in the race against the powerful Oakland A's. In 1989 the team struggled to an 80-82 record before bottoming out in 1990 by finishing in last place.
In 1991, once again, not much was expected of the Twins. Puckett and Hrbek were still there, young pitchers Kevin Tapani and Scott Erickson showed promise, veteran starter Jack Morris was brought in as was DH Chili Davis, and Rick Aguilera was developing into a premier closer. Even with all of those positives, the Twins were once again seen as a second tier team. But, like 1987, the team was able to catch lightning in a bottle and capture a World Series title in thrilling fashion against the Atlanta Braves. The 1991 World Series is regarded as one of the finest ever.
The Twins were once again in first place in August of 1992, but a home sweep at the hands of the Oakland A's sent them into a tail spin that would take them the better part of the next decade to recover from. The Twins spent the rest of the 90s losing. They lost 90 or more games six of the next eight seasons. Their hot prospects failed one after another - David McCarty, Willie Banks, Pat Mahomes, and Todd Walker to name just a few. The ownership decided to repeatedly trim the payroll. Throughout that entire time Tom Kelly stayed the course. He remained loyal - turning down more lucrative job offers elsewhere.
Finally in April of 2001 the Twins once again showed signs of life. They started out 9-2 and raced to a 5 game lead in the AL Central at the All Star break. In the second half, however, the Twins wore down - injuries mounted, their inexperience showed. Tom Kelly never complained - he never used the teams low payroll as an excuse. The Twins rebounded somewhat in September and gave Minnesota a winner again. They got the fans' interest back. Anyone that has spent the last decade in Minnesota knows that is no small feat.
Tom Kelly seems at peace with his decision. He insists he did not resign, he retired. He gives the impression that this decision was not all that difficult for him - but it had to be. He says the game is about the players. The fact that he sat in the dugout with his arm folded, legs crossed, and face expressionless watching his team celebrate two world championships proves that he truly believes it.
Farewell TK, you will be missed.
Authors Note: Tom Kelly finished his managerial career with a 1140-1244 career record. He played one season in the major leagues, 1975 with Minnesota, hitting .181 with 1 HR and 11 RBI in 127 at bats.
TK's career stats at Baseball-Reference.com
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