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Kelly's Zeroes

Craig Bares

In this local baseball season of sour prospects and high-stakes indifference, there is no one in the Minnesota Twins organization with more to prove than manager Tom Kelly. Since the club's 1987-1991 heyday as the model of small-market ingenuity and accomplishment (it's easy to forget that, besides the two championships, as recently as 10 years ago Minnesota held the major-league single-season attendance record), the Twins have been in a complete organizational free fall. During that time, Kirby Puckett and Kelly have been virtually the only people associated with the team whose reputations have survived the beating the franchise has taken everywhere from the playing field to the court of public opinion. It's strange to hear a manager whose ballclub has produced the worst record in major-league baseball over the past five seasons still routinely referred to by his local proponents as one of the best managers in the game, and even stranger still to find such a manager not only relatively unscathed by the complete public-relations wipeout surrounding his team, but emerging despite it all as perhaps the most powerful man in the organization.

While Kelly's two World Series rings have certainly earned him a measure of respect, they have also for too long now been used to obscure his own complicity in the Twins' meltdown both on and off the field. (Ask recently fired Toronto manager Cito Gaston how much two championships are worth in the real, modern baseball world outside of Minnesota.) Kelly's cronies in the media rebut criticism of his recent record with the usual sob stories about small-market economics and the hopeless battle Kelly is forced to wage year after year on such a lopsided playing field. They argue that Kelly does the best that can be expected considering the mediocre assemblage of talent he is given, and consistently credit him with getting more mileage out of retreads, nonprospects, and complete bums than any of his major-league peers. But consider last year's roster, which included seven former All-Stars, three rookies of the year, and nine number-one draft choices.

Significantly, most of those players were developed by other franchises. For all the current talk of market disparities and revenue streams, player development is still the one thing that distinguishes the consistently good franchises from the ones that flounder. The great teams build around homegrown prospects--witness the Atlanta Braves or Cleveland Indians' teams of the last several years, or the key players in the Yankees' recent turnaround: Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter. Previous to their '90s bumper crop of prospects, the Yankees were always Exhibit A in the argument that all the money in the world couldn't buy a world championship. Market handicaps might keep a team from ultimately retaining the young talent it develops, but by almost any measure the Twins' efforts at producing and nurturing good major-league players in the last decade have been a colossal failure.

It's sometimes a good thing to remember that Kelly wasn't even around when his 1987 nucleus of "big shooters" was losing 102 games and developing into major-league players under Billy "Slick" Gardner in 1982. There were a few exasperating and entertaining years there, and Gardner, along with his pitching coach Johnny Podres, stuck with and developed the core group of players who would win Kelly a World Series in his first season as manager. Of all the very good to truly great players who have played for Kelly in his long tenure as Twins manager, only one--Chuck Knoblauch--spent his first major-league years under Kelly's guidance, and the truth is that Kelly and Knoblauch had a stormy relationship from day one. Scott Erickson, the talented oddball who won 20 games in his first full season with the Twins, also clashed with Kelly and his pitching coach, Dick Such, and after several embittering years here moved on to have success with Baltimore.

The blue-collar, career minor-leaguer in Kelly seems to have an almost innate disrespect for "naturals," the sort of breezy, self-assured young players who often arrive in the major leagues with plenty of hype and attitude to go with their skills. There's no longer any point in denying that Kelly has for the most part failed miserably in his dealings with promising young players, from top draft choices to consensus prospects. While he appears to genuinely relish pointing out that none of his hotshot whipping boys has gone on to any sort of success anywhere else, such a cruel notion misses the point that the development, or lack of development, of such players as major-leaguers is ultimately Kelly's responsibility. It also fails to take into account the often fragile egos of modern ballplayers and the fact that such young players generally leave Kelly's doghouse as seriously damaged goods, completely sapped of their enjoyment of the game.

Let's get specific. Consider that the allegedly patient Kelly gave Todd Walker--the latest prospect to experience the torsion of Kelly's displeasure--a total of 156 at bats to prove himself last year, fewer than he has commonly given to Northern League-caliber players such as Dan Masteller, whom Kelly sent to the plate 198 times in 1995. Another of Kelly's permanent doghouse residents and failed Twins prospects was pitcher Pat Mahomes, who was afforded a total of 51 starts in his four-plus seasons in Minnesota, ten fewer than Kelly bequeathed to the horrendous Rich Robertson over the last few years.

Young players are routinely given a much shorter rope and are held to a higher performance standard than the dues-paid-in-full veterans on every Kelly team. Consider the case of Rich Becker, one of the convenient scapegoats for last year's failures. Last season, when he was 25 years old, Becker hit .264 with an on-base percentage of .354, a slugging average of .395, and 22 doubles, 10 home runs, 45 runs batted in, 62 walks, and 130 strikeouts. Veteran Terry Steinbach, signed to a big contract and coming off a career year in Oakland, hit .248 with an OBP of .302 and a slugging average of .394; he hit 27 doubles and 12 home runs, with 54 RBIs, 35 walks, and 106 strikeouts. Guess which player consistently roused Kelly's ire and was traded away in the off-season? Becker. Not a word from Kelly about the disappointing season of Steinbach.

The notoriously churlish Kelly hasn't exactly done the organization any favors off the field, either. Kelly's never been a fan-friendly manager, as anyone who has ever made the horrible mistake of calling or listening to his sadistic WCCO radio program could readily attest: He almost seems to delight in belittling anyone venturing an opinion from the vast world of ignorance outside his own insular and almost cabalistic inner circle of baseball lifers and dog-track cronies. Since his rookie season he has been as prickly and petulant with the press as any of the spoiled superstars for whom he has so little patience or respect.

As baseball's foremost man-out-of-time proponent of throwback, blue-collar baseball traditions--work hard, play solid fundamental baseball, pay your dues, and, above all, always respect the game--Kelly comes uniquely qualified. His own major-league career--like those of the majority of coaches he has surrounded himself with and toward whom he has shown a ferocious and almost admirable loyalty--was a discouraging blip, a too-brief window of opportunity in which he failed utterly to seize the moment. It remains absolutely clear that his meager total of 127 big-league at bats instilled in Kelly an immense respect for the honor and privilege associated with wearing a major-league uniform. But the experience also apparently left Kelly with a huge residual bitterness and a chip on his shoulder that the two World Series rings haven't been able to budge.

It's not surprising that the notion of young players being essentially handed major-league jobs along with their seven-figure signing bonuses wouldn't sit well with a veteran of 13 minor-league seasons, but at some point Kelly needs to recognize there are no longer any moral victories in professional sports, and playing the game "the right way"--Kelly's mantra--doesn't mean a damn thing if it doesn't also involve winning. The bottom line is that any day of the week most fans--and most managers--would willingly take a 50-home-run hitter with an apparent attitude problem over a guy who hustles out five ground balls a game and unfailingly hits the cut-off man.

Major-league rosters are crowded with superstars who, the company line has always had it, "couldn't play for Tom Kelly." There was hope in some quarters that Chuck Knoblauch's pissy departure would light a fire under the obviously proud Kelly. One would certainly think that this season would represent a huge personal challenge for the Twins manager, as the team he piloted to the top of the baseball world in 1987 and 1991 now finds itself reeling from five straight losing seasons and a political and public rejection so complete as to make any relocation of the franchise as much a case of community abandonment as economic flight.


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