As calmly and quietly as his laid-back demeanor reflects, longtime Twins manager Tom Kelly stepped down on Friday after heading the Minnesota ball club for over 15 years.
Sure, his team wasn’t that great — in fact, they’ve been subpar since their World Series title in 1991 — but there is something to be said for a man who dedicated 15 years, a lifetime in professional sports, to a single organization.
Kelly’s managing tenure was the longest in any professional sport. And what’s more impressive, Kelly had to sit on a bench and watch a minor-league caliber team lose night after night to legitimate MLB competitors.
At the beginning of his tenure, things weren’t quite so miserable for TK. Kelly won the World Series in his first season with the Twins in 1987, when they defeated the St. Louis Cardinals, and he found himself atop the MLB heap again four years later, when his Twinkies won another World Series ring against the Braves.
But after early success, things went downhill, and soon wins were hard to come by. The stars of the championship years were gone, with Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett opting for early retirements and other players worth any amount of money or talent traded in order to keep the team’s pathetic salary cap one of the lowest in the league. Soon the fans stopped coming to the Metrodome, too, and the only sights left in the Dome were faceless players and an ugly tarp used to cover the empty seats in the outfield. Yet Kelly stayed in Minnesota, and came to work with his young and talentless squads season after season.
Watching the frumpish man with shaggy silver hair and eyeglasses that looked as old as his first World Series ring, I often wondered why Kelly still hung around as manager. At first I thought it was so his son could still be batboy, but then after several years I figured he had to have graduated by that point. Then I thought it was for money, but come on, the Twins don’t pay anyone well. And it wasn’t for the thrill of winning, because that didn’t happen much either.
Not even Twins personnel were quite sure why he stuck around.
“He certainly had the opportunity to go elsewhere through the years,” Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said, “particularly recently when we cut the payroll back.”
But perhaps Kelly’s history is all the explanation that’s needed to define his loyalty. Kelly was a Minnesota native, and was involved with the Twins for over 30 years. He spent one year with Minnesota as a player in 1975, and after going through the minor league coaching ranks, he became the third-base coach in 1983 as a member of Billy Gardner’s staff. Then on Sept. 12, 1986, Kelly officially took over as the Twins’ manager.
In the end, Kelly just proved to be loyal to his job. He was comfortable with the organization and he liked living in Minnesota. And that’s why it’s so puzzling that he was treated so badly before the start of this season.
After sticking with this team through its highs and lows, Kelly almost got the boot after last season. The Twins considered going in a new direction, perhaps a winning one, but in the end Kelly’s previous 14 years of loyalty seemed to win out. And in response, Kelly took a group of nobodies to a place where no Twins team had been in years — toward the top of the American League standings. But that was back in the spring, and the second half of the season proved to be not so kind to the lowly Twins. Nonetheless, Kelly proved that he truly can take any group of players and coach them into a winning team. While there was no pennant won this season, Kelly’s squad did finish second in the AL Central division, with an 85-77 record.
And now his reign is over, and someone else will take over his spot on the bench where he used to squint through his glasses to see the field, and pace back and forth when his team was in a close game. But what won’t disappear is his legacy. For me, I will remember TK as the man who looks like my godfather. One day after a game, my godfather was at a bar across the street from the Dome with my other uncle, who happens to resemble Hrbek. Some misled fans came up to my godfather (with his silver hair, glasses, and freakishly similar facial features as TK) and uncle and asked for autographs. After all, what are the odds two men sitting next to each other look very similar to a player/coach duo? True story. Or perhaps I’ll remember him as the man my grandma refers to as “that little sweetie.”
As for people whose memories really matter, TK won’t be forgotten by them either.
“He had the respect of his peers,” Puckett said. “We respected him here and I know we’re losing a good manager now and he will be hard to replace.”
Yes, 15 years, two World Series rings and a lifetime of loyalty are hard to duplicate.