Souhan: Tom Kelly forever the humble champion

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2012 - 2:46 PM

As Twins manager, Tom Kelly always preferred to deflect attention to his players. As the team retires his number, he finally will get a moment in the spotlight.

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Tom Kelly went 1,140-1,244 as Twins manager, winning World Series titles in 1987 and 1991.

Photo: Joey McLeister, Star Tribune file 2001

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It's just before 9 a.m. on a glorious morning in the St. Paul suburbs. The local golf course is packed, and a few blocks away, on leafy cul-de-sac, Tom Kelly pulls two folding chairs back from the sunbeams creeping into his garage, so he can talk in the shade.

Kelly's wife, Sharon, bustles between their kitchen and the back yard they have turned into an arboretum. Kelly leans back, the clippings from a morning of mowing clinging to his shins, and describes his neighbors; the retired police chiefs who flank him, the couple across the street preparing to have a baby, his golfing buddies. "We've got it pretty good here," he said.

Kelly has worked for the Twins since 1978. He could have left long ago.

When Kelly was managing the woeful Twins of the mid-'90s, and again after he retired following the 2001 season, he received stealthy inquiries about running other teams.

The Twins will honor his mentorship of two World Series champions Saturday when they will retire his No. 10 at Target Field. They will also honor his loyalty.

"Everybody seems excited, like it's something special,'' Kelly said. "I can't get it out of my head that the game is more about the players than the coaches and managers and umpires and general managers. But there are a lot of people looking forward to this."

As a manager, Kelly often gravitated toward clubhouse workers and security guards more than players and media. The party he's throwing Saturday shows he hasn't changed.

He has invited about 100 people. The guest list consists mostly of neighbors, old friends, family and former clubhouse workers. "It's going to be a big to-do," he said.

As a manager, Kelly excelled at anticipating opponents' moves. In conversation, he often begins answering a question before it has been finished, just like he'd sometimes head to the mound before a home run had landed.

Did he ever think about his Hall of Fame credentials? Kelly hears the "H" and begins his answer.

"I don't think about that, unless I get asked," he said. "There's a lot of people who dwell on it like it's a life-and-death thing. I've got some pretty good friends on the East Coast, and they suggested that once you've won three times, you're pretty much locked in. Like you said, I've had opportunities to do a lot of things besides work for the Twins. But I don't regret any of that.

"There were a few years I took some stupid pills, but for the most part I did pretty good."

In his first six full seasons as Twins manager, he won two World Series. From 1993 through 2000, he managed eight consecutive losing teams.

During that time, it was an open secret that large-market teams wanted to lure him away from Minnesota.

Again, Kelly answers while being asked, citing how the Twins transitioned from being praised as baseball's model franchise to becoming a tax writeoff for late owner Carl Pohlad.

"My first year, I was just worried about surviving and seeing if I could do this thing," he said. "Then, after we had a little success because of some really good players, then, Mr. Pohlad invited us down to the bank building. He was going to cut salaries back to, what, 15 or 16 million?

"He asked me how long I thought it would take to turn things around. I told him, 'About three years, at least.' He said, 'OK. Would you stick with me while we do this?'

"The guy gave me a chance. What am I going to do? Run away? We had our families here. I wasn't interested in moving. Once he asked me to stay, I decided to stay, knowing it was going to be a little rough. No, I don't have any second thoughts about that.''

Kelly remains friends with his successor, Ron Gardenhire. Both experienced immediate success and kept the job through losing seasons.

"Gardy's got a lot to hang onto there," Kelly said. "He's done very well in the big picture of things. He's got nothing to hang his head about. I know it bothers him, but he's done a really nice job. Excellent, actually."

Asked for his favorite memories, Kelly skims over the made-for-TV World Series moments and summons a scene from the manager's end of the dugout, on a September afternoon long before anybody could have anticipated Kelly's number joining Tony Oliva's and Harmon Killebrew's in a new ballpark in Minneapolis.

On Sept. 27, 1987, the Twins were preparing for their last home game of the season. They had lost two in a row and their lead in the old AL West was down to five, with seven games remaining.

Kelly headed to the dugout early. "People were starting to cheer, and I was like, 'What's going on?'" he said. "They were just excited about the game. I thought that was pretty good.''

The Twins won that game, and the next, to clinch a division title. Since then, Kelly has spoken in honor or remembrance of many of his former players and bosses. Saturday, he will take "four or five" minutes to talk about himself.

"Talking about the players was easy," Kelly said. "If there's any praise to be given, it's about the players. There are only a few numbers up there in that ballpark, and those are some big-shot players.

"I'm having a little trouble balancing that, that I'll be up there with them. But if the Twins want to do this, then, OK, we'll do it. It's quite an honor, that's for sure."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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