THE LAST WORKING STIFF
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."
That's because, regardless of what he said to loosen Morris up during the World Series, baseball has never been "only a game" to Kelly. It's his whole world, a place well-suited to his enigmatic personality, a place where his peculiar blend of arrogance and humility can be a spur to team accomplishments--where a loner can comfortably keep gregarious company with dozens of people. It's also a world where pride, craftsmanship, and steady effort can occasionally give flash and privilege a run for their money. This is the battle Kelly has been bred for. "Baseball is the only thing I know how to do," Kelly told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1991. "When you don't have anything else you can do, you better do that one thing right."
Kelly's father, Joe Kelly, was once a minor league baseball player; Tom was born in Minnesota, in a Graceville hospital in 1950, because Joe played for a semi-pro team in Chokio 13 miles away. The first time Tom's name ever appeared in a newspaper, Joe was quoted in the local weekly as saying his four-day-old son looked like he'd be a southpaw, baseball parlance for a left-hander, which in fact Kelly turned out to be. With another mouth to feed, Joe quit the team at the end of the season and returned with his wife to his native New Jersey, where he eventually found work driving a truck for an oil refinery in South Amboy.
"I've been through where he grew up," says Dark Star. "It was a time and a place where you could bet the number with the milkman. That kind of neighborhood." Tom and his younger brother, Joe, Jr., grew up playing ball with their father in the backyard and at the local Veterans Field. Tom was the one who stuck with the game through a variety of Little League and Legion ball teams, and was good enough to be drafted by the Seattle Pilots right out of high school in 1968. Slowly but surely, it became apparent that Kelly's package of skills weren't adequate for the major leagues. Ryan, who was a couple of years behind Kelly in the minors at the time and who subsequently made his career as a talent scout, describes Kelly as "kind of an in-between player; he didn't have a tremendous amount of speed. He was a good defensive first baseman, but he didn't have the kind of power that you'd like at that position."
Tenaciously, Kelly tried to compensate. "He was one of those types who always put together a good at-bat, who you had trouble getting out, a guy a manager likes to have on the club," Ryan recalls. Kelly was cut from the Seattle organization in the spring of 1971, an experience he describes as "pretty devastating." Within days, however, the Twins' then-Director of Minor League Operations, George Brophy, snapped him up for their Charlotte farm club. "Back then, I used to say he was born old," Brophy claims. "He had fun, but he was very mature for his age. There was a seriousness about him acquiring a knowledge of the game."
In 1975, Kelly finally clawed his way to the majors, receiving a call-up after one of the Twins' outfielders was injured. He was so nervous he vomited on the flight to Baltimore, and says he doesn't even remember walking to the plate or receiving the first two pitches of his debut at-bat; his family, who had also flown in for the occasion, watched from the stands. Kelly's first and only stint as a major league player lasted just 49 games, resulting in a paltry .181 batting average. During that time, he endured debilitating headaches that he couldn't explain, belatedly discovering that it was caused by eye problems that were corrected with glasses. Only once has Kelly been caught in print wondering what might have happened if the problem had been detected earlier; mostly he cherishes the brief chance he did receive. Even after piloting the Twins to a world championship, he told a Strib reporter that "in the major leagues, being a manager can't compare to being a player," an experience he rated as "my greatest thrill."
Kelly's aspirations to make it as a player died hard. After Brophy appointed him player-manager of the Tacoma farm team for the last half of the 1977 season when he was just 26, Kelly refused an offer to manage full-time the following year in order to concentrate on his playing. By the time he gave up hope and accepted the job managing the Twins' Class A club in Visalia, California, in 1979, he had toiled 11 years in the minors. Yet he jumped into managing with the same all-encompassing dedication. Brophy remembers visiting the ballclub and seeing Kelly out with a tractor, dragging the ballfield after a game. "I didn't hire you to be a groundskeeper," he told Kelly. "If I don't do it, it doesn't get done," Kelly responded. At other points while managing in the minors, he would also wash the players' uniforms, sweep the floors, and line the base paths, sometimes with his wife helping out, their two young children at their sides.
The players also bore the brunt of Kelly's intensity. "As much as we were learning how to play, he was learning how to manage," says Tim Laudner, the former Twins' catcher who played under Kelly at three different places in the minors. "One time, he reamed me like I had never been reamed before, not even by my dad, and I just stood there and looked him in the eye and took it. A couple of weeks later he called me over and said, 'Remember when I was hard on you a while back? I just wanted to say you handled it real well.'"
"He had a lot more of a temper in the minors," confirms former Twins outfielder Randy Bush. "I can remember him screaming at me, 'Bush you're going down like soft shit in the rain!' and I was leading the league in RBIs at the time."
Yet Bush, Laudner, and almost every other player who has been part of Kelly's teams retain a fierce loyalty to him. His youthful start as a manager has enabled him to relate to them less as a father figure than as a responsible older brother, able to foster a loose, mock-subversive clubhouse atmosphere without losing the power to lay down the law when he feels it's necessary. "When he walked in on us screwing around we didn't stop," says Kent Hrbek, perhaps the most fun-loving player in Twins' history. "Hell, more than half the time, TK would add fuel to the fire." According to Bush, "Tom Kelly makes the ballpark a place where, when you're home at lunch, you want to get there." Inspiring your employees to want to come to work is a huge accomplishment for the manager of any business, but it is especially crucial in a palpably competitive environment like professional sports. "Shit yeah it's a grind; your whole summer is booked, I mean every day," Hrbek explains. "To keep it fun and interesting, especially when you're 30 games behind, that's tough."
When Kelly succeeded the uptight disciplinarian Ray Miller as Twins manager in September 1986 after serving as the team's third base coach for three years, he said early and often that the fastest way for him to improve the ballclub was to brighten the attitude of the players. His success at doing just that paid off in a world championship in his first full year on the job. Ten years later, if you spend any time in the Twins' clubhouse, you're liable to find Kelly goosing up goodwill. One day he'll saunter over to Molitor's locker and tease out a monologue that moves from Bruce Springsteen to the caliber of his own golf game, until Molitor and catcher Matt Walbeck are exchanging bemused looks and Molitor sings, "Well, I'm a rambling kind of guy," when Kelly departs. The next day he'll be marching through the clubhouse zinging insults at everybody's appearance, absurdly claiming that rotund equipment manager Jim Wiesner needs a perm so he can look like Yankees' pitcher Geoff Nelson--humor tailored for a close-knit, cloistered society.
Managing a baseball team is sometimes a nasty endeavor: You regulate how much people play, and decide whether or not they are even a member of your ballclub, fucking with their livelihood in a very direct manner. Kelly's masterstroke has been in depersonalizing much of the nastiness by tying a player's fate as much to that player's adherence to the tenets and traditions of the game as to Kelly's assessment of the player's potential talent. In this way, the fun in the clubhouse is counterbalanced by the fundamentals out on the field. Kelly is shrewd to adopt and deploy this style for a couple of reasons: First, because he is able to communicate more clearly than most managers what he demands of his players; and second, because his authority seems earned instead of titular--he's rigged it to be "fair." It's very simple really: On the Twins, more than on any other franchise, a person's value is determined by his knowledge of and diligence for playing the game the way it is supposed to be played, the way it used to be played before greed, irreverence, and cheap celebrity turned it into a business. And nobody is more knowledgeable or diligent than Tom Kelly.
Kelly's status as baseball's foremost drone bee is breathtaking in its totality, a product of both nature and nurture. The son of a minor-league ballplayer and the father of a major-league prospect, his appreciation for the minutiae of the game's strategies and techniques almost physically emanates from him when he is at the ballpark. Asked if Kelly is totally prepared when a game begins, coach Ron Gardenhire widens his eyes, shakes his head, and says, "More than you can imagine. As a coach underneath him, you hope that the things he brings up don't surprise you, but sometimes they still do. Like, if a ball is hit to right field, he'll see the right-fielder make the play but also notice what the left-fielder is doing. I don't care how long you've been in the game, that's not easy to do."
The ultimate "Tom Kelly players" are those who learn to wring maximum worth out of minimal ability. Kelly often tries to help them by bluntly defining their limitations; he firmly believes that response to failure and adversity is a reliable test of character. Chip Hale says that a 1990 meeting with Kelly "completely changed my outlook on baseball and my career. He told me how to handle myself in order to be a professional in this league." It took Hale nearly three years in the minors to make it back to the Twins. Kelly says that he probably wouldn't be in the majors at all if the caliber of pitching wasn't so diluted; yet he fought to keep Hale as on the roster this year in the highly specialized pinch-hitter's role. Hale has rewarded that faith with a number of key hits.
Sometimes Kelly's disdain for celebrity, contempt for snobbery or self-pity, and alignment with America's working stiffs approaches the level of class warfare. When his minor-league players suffered through a bad game, he'd occasionally drive them by rows of field hands or factory workers to provide a little perspective. In 1990, he personally washed basketball uniforms so the Minnesota Timberwolves clubhouse workers could go play a hockey game. Hours before a Twins game, before anyone is in the bleachers, he can be found chasing after balls hit by Gardenhire's son. Asked when was the happiest he had ever seen Kelly, Hrbek replies, "Well, he had a big grin after we won the Series in '87, but I'd have to say he's happiest when he's out there pitching batting practice, busting one inside on our wrists."
Not that Kelly has ever been a particularly happy camper. As the self-appointed arbiter of fun in the clubhouse and fundamentals on the field, he demands an even-keel approach to his work, a stoicism that is emotionally inadequate at times to the responsibilities he bears. At the age of 46, Kelly doesn't look a day under 55. There is a boorish, intolerant aspect to his demeanor that crops up in situations he can't control, especially when dealing with members of the media. Over his 10-year managerial tenure, he has frequently yelled at and belittled members of the media; one time he threw chairs; another time he had to be restrained by two team employees from personally attacking a reporter. Significantly, most of the these incidents have happened deep into the season, when the pressure and fatigue are both higher. To his credit, Kelly has worked with a media consultant and greatly curtailed embarrassing run-ins with reporters over the past few years; his caustic responses to callers of his Sunday morning radio show have also diminished.
On the other hand, it's difficult to see how fostering better relations with the media would be worth it to Kelly. Merely improving his etiquette would subvert his nature--he's never been one to put on airs. He already has the loyalty of his players, the admiration of his peers, and the respect and appreciation of the fans. The way the media dance operates, more elaborate, less intimidating answers would only prompt more intimate questions. As a leader who stakes his authority on diligence and preparation, Kelly is already pressed for time.
"He doesn't suffer fools in the media or in his private life," says Dark Star. "He expects everyone to be prepared to do what their role calls for and he expects it every day. Those expectations give him the largest possible chance to be successful. I wish I could do that, instead of spending time and energy with people that is not beneficial. Tom Kelly does not waste his time."
"I went out with him on a winter tour this year and there were a group of kids in the back not paying attention while he was talking and he just cut his speech off after a couple of minutes," says former Twins pitcher and current television commentator Bert Blyleven. "Where I might try to be a little more vocal and get their attention, you could see him think, 'Well, if you're not going to listen, fuck it; I ain't talking.' He's not a guy I feel could manage in New York or other big cities, but he has made a home for himself here. People respect him and he just goes out and tells it like it is. If people don't like it, well, that's Tom Kelly."
True enough, Kelly has spun a sturdy cocoon in his own image here in Minnesota. His coaching staff is comprised of five white males between the ages of 39 and 55, like-minded individuals who had modest major-league careers and come from the cigar-smoking, tobacco-chewing old school, paying meticulous attention to detail and hewing to the verities of the game. Put simply, they are throwbacks who revel in stories like one from bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek: "The front office was giving me heat during spring training about getting a computer. I always write everything out on a legal pad. And TK says, 'Well, we won two world championships with a legal pad; what's wrong with that?' So that was the end of the theory about electronic computers and stuff like that."
Even by the close-knit standards of the game, the Twins coaches and Kelly are fiercely loyal to each other, particularly Kelly and Terry Crowley, a fellow Irishman who grew up in the east. "Yeah, I'd say we have a lot in common; I think we think very much alike," says Crowley, filling his cheek with tobacco. "I have a tendency to be around him more than the other guys. He likes to shy away from the limelight. We'll go to the racetrack or something and he likes to get a table for me and him and get away from everything. Sometimes after a tough loss, we'll sit there for a half-hour before the races even start and neither one of us will say a word."
"There are all kinds of warm and fuzzies," says Dark Star. "For some people, it's a big hug. For other guys it's a nod of the head. For Tom Kelly it's a nod of the head." Asked about Kelly's other friends, Dark Star brings up Crowley. "Terry Crowley is his own man, but he and TK have this in common: Here is your basic black, here is your basic white, and there is no middle of the road; you are either with us or against us. That simplifies life a little bit. Keeping your enemies close to you is an ideology that Tom Kelly would never be able to institute."
If there is one consuming passion Kelly allows himself outside of baseball, it is the racetrack, both dogs and horses. As with baseball, it is an activity passed down from his father at an early age. During his first few years in the minors, Kelly spent the off-season shoveling manure and cleaning the stables at a New York racetrack. In classic Kelly fashion, he has steadily chipped away at the science of the sport until he is thoroughly schooled in the discipline. Friends say he is a pretty fair handicapper. He also has owned racehorses and dogs, and met his second wife, a dog trainer, at the track.
In talking with people who know Kelly, it is interesting how many times analogies are drawn between the two sports. Kelly's job at the stables was at a track for trotters, and he became enamored with the graceful, even pace of their gait, much as he favors a steady, even keel in the emotional rhythms of his ballclub. "I am sure he would have been a great harness trainer, and I think he would have been satisfied with that," says Dark Star. "He's got the best work ethic of anyone you've ever seen in your life; he's never late and his batting practices are timed out almost to the second. The track is regimented like that: If you do the same thing over and over and over again, you know you are going to be successful."
Horse trainers have told Kelly that the biggest problem with horses is that they always get hurt. Kelly, in turn, used to tell Hrbek he was reminded of those words whenever Hrbie went down with an injury. And in describing "rocket-fire," an intensive infield drill that Kelly instituted to temper players during spring training, Stelmaszek says, "TK's philosophy is that you can finely tune athletes like you do horses and dogs; not that they are animals, but that they work better and get more done early, and through repetition. That's what we do with rocket-fire."
Listening to his friends, it seems as if recent times are as good as it gets for Tom Kelly. By all accounts, his second marriage is gloriously solid. Meanwhile, the 1996 edition of the Twins may be Kelly's most miraculous performance yet--no mean feat. Without the services of superstar Kirby Puckett, with his best pitcher (Rick Aguilera) and his second- and third-best players (Chuck Knoblauch and Marty Cordova) up and down with injuries, and with a pitching staff that features no real ace in the rotation or stopper in the bullpen, Kelly has a sub-mediocre team playing consistently inspired baseball. When the Baltimore Orioles came to the Metrodome for a late-July series, the contrast between the two teams was especially stark: On paper, the Orioles had superior players at each of the nine positions on the field, yet after more than 100 games played, the Twins had just two fewer wins. That is the steady, beguiling song of Tom Kelly.
Approaching Kelly sitting by himself in the dugout recently, I again asked him for an interview. "About what," he barked, prepared to turn me down. "The players," I said. "You name the time and place, anytime on this homestand." After giving me a day-by-day explanation of why we couldn't meet for the next five days, Kelly set a time, and granted me 15 minutes. The interview was crisp, polite, and informative about the players; otherwise sealed shut on any insight into Tom Kelly, who spent much of the time spitting the chewed off end of his cigar into a wastebasket. He was most animated talking about rocket-fire, saying that it was "basically a composure thing. Players understand the fundamentals of the game; getting them done is another matter. We do it to see who can handle some of the stress and the activity. It is usually very hot at that time of year and the pace goes very fast and it is prolonged. So on the composure end of it, we see who is gonna panic or not. It helps us separate some of the players at that time."
With time running out, I asked him to recommend some people who knew him well whom I could talk to. "My wife knows me well," he says.
"Could I talk to her?"
It may have been the most amusing idea he'd heard all day. Crinkling his face up into something halfway between a wince and a smile, he shook his head once and grunted, getting up and walking toward his desk, the interview over. "All right then," he concluded. "Good luck."
Both of us knew he didn't mean it.
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