By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Before the first game of the 1991 baseball season, the Minnesota Twins clustered in the locker room for a last minute review of the scouting reports on the day's opponent, the Detroit Tigers. Having spent a good portion of his long career with Detroit, Jack Morris--the pitching ace signed by the Twins to a fat contract in the off-season--began to chime in on what he knew about the Tiger hitters. Suddenly, Twins manager Tom Kelly cut him short.
"Listen Jack, I don't give a shit how you pitched against these guys. Just shut up and if we want your opinion we'll ask for it," Kelly said. The clubhouse got quiet as a tomb. On and off the field, Morris had a well-earned reputation for being a hot-headed competitor. Out of Morris's line of vision, Kelly quickly winked at his players as he again started haranguing the pitcher. Finally, the entire team burst out laughing, with Morris quickly joining in. It was a classic Kelly gambit: enhancing camaraderie, deflating egos, and amiably reinforcing the manager's control of his ballclub.
More than six months later, with the Twins locked in a scoreless tie with the Atlanta Braves in the ninth inning of the seventh and deciding game of the 1991 World Series, Kelly walked out to the pitcher's mound to see how much Morris had left. Conventional wisdom said it was time to remove Morris in favor of a fresh pitcher. As expected, Morris was reluctant to leave, and pled his case. Kelly looked into his eyes, said, "Well, it's only a game," and strolled back to the bench. With Morris holding firm, the Twins finally scored in the bottom of the 10th inning to win their second world championship in Kelly's five years as manager.
September 12 marks the 10th anniversary of Kelly's reign as the Twins manager. There have been no championships since '91--indeed, the Twins tied for the worst record in the major leagues last season--yet Kelly's stature among aficionados of the game has steadily risen during that time. Along with Tony LaRussa of St. Louis and Jim Leyland of Pittsburgh, Kelly is now regarded as one of baseball's top three managers, and the best in the American League. And no current manager has defined the identity of a franchise more than Kelly has in Minnesota. His reputation has been built not on his team's percentage of wins and losses, but on his preparation and persistence, borne out in the purity with which his players execute the fundamentals of the game. Jim Rantz, the Twins' director of Minor Leagues, acknowledges that in evaluating a prospect, "We always say a player is or isn't Tom Kelly's type of player." Early this season, Kelly was asked if troubled slugger Darryl Strawberry could ever play for him. His answer was a flat no. Consequently, when the Twins were desperately in need of a power-hitting outfielder, they sat by and watched Strawberry, playing just over the river for the St. Paul Saints, get snatched up by the first-place Yankees.
Yet Rance says that when the Twins are interested in going after a high-profile free agent: "Kelly is our biggest signing tool. We put TK's name out there and say, 'How would you like to play for this guy?'" The most recent example is future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who confirms that Kelly's presence figured into his decision to play in Minnesota. "I've played against his clubs and noticed that on a given day, you couldn't tell whether they were in first place or last place, or if it was April or September; there was a consistency about the way he'd get his teams to play," Molitor says.
Kelly's dominance is such that the Twins' marketing department used the players' preparedness as the theme of their television campaign this year, ads that Twins marketing consultant Pat Forceia acknowledges are essentially "Kelly spots." In late July, the organization tore up Kelly's existing contract and awarded him a three-year extension (expiring in 2000) that presumably increases his previous salary of approximately $600,000 a year. In announcing the new deal, General Manager Terry Ryan said that with the loss of superstar outfielder Kirby Puckett, "I felt like I needed to do something to bring stability to this organization." It was an extraordinary statement, considering that managers usually have the least job security of anyone in baseball.
Kelly reacts to all these genuflections with an ostentatious yawn. "I don't do that," he says, turning down a request for a personal interview with nonchalant certainty. "People come to the park to see the players; I'll talk about them." For years, a Superman T-shirt with a null-and-void symbol stencilled over it has occupied a prominent place on his office wall. When the Twins won their first-ever world championship in 1987, Kelly stayed in the dugout while his players celebrated on the field, as he had done when his minor league teams won titles. When the Twins again became champions four years later, he finally permitted himself some brief on-field revelry, then, as if to atone for it, declined President Bush's traditional invitation to visit the White House. Today, while pulling down enough money to afford Armani suits, he still dresses like Lumpy on Leave It To Beaver. "I think he takes pains as to how much of him you can see and how much you can't see," says WCCO radio host Dark Star, who is close enough to Kelly to stay at his Florida apartment with him during spring training. "But he is at an age where he has had tremendous accomplishments and he is very comfortable with his life. He doesn't need to open himself up to anybody."