FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Tom Kelly was 29 and had managed his first full season in 1979 at Class A Visalia for the Twins. Rick Stelmaszek was about to turn 31 and had managed his second season at Wisconsin Rapids, the Twins’ other Class A team.
Kelly had played 11 professional seasons as a first baseman and outfielder, reaching the big leagues with the Twins for 49 games in 1976. He batted .181 in 127 at-bats, and hit his only home run off Detroit’s Vern Ruhle on May 26, 1976 at Tiger Stadium.
Stelmaszek played 11 professional seasons (including 23 games while also managing in 1978) as a catcher. He spent parts of three seasons in the big leagues and played in 60 games. He batted .170 in 88 at-bats, and hit his only home run for the Chicago Cubs off Dodgers’ Hall of Famer Don Sutton on Aug. 20, 1974 in Wrigley Field.
The two young managers completed their Class A seasons, and then were sent to Clearwater, Fla. to handle the Twins team in the Florida Instructional League.
“I went from Visalia to New Jersey and was home for about a day and half, before going to Florida,’’ Kelly said. “It’s still summer in Florida in September and October. And back then, the fields would be rock hard at that time of year.’’
Stelmaszek told me in the past that working long days in Clearwater in 1979 were the hottest he had ever been on a baseball field, which is saying something for a man who had caught in North Carolina cities such as Salisbury and Shelby in the summer.
Kelly and Stelmaszek would arrive by 7 a.m. and water and work the field to try to get it into some form of playing condition. They then would run drills for three hours, hitting fungoes, throwing hundreds of pitches in batting practice, followed by a game in the full heat of the afternoon.
“Clearwater was hot, but nothing close to what it was when he played a game in St. Pete,’’ Kelly said. “There wasn’t a foot of shade in that ballpark, and the sun would beat down on it all day long. The metal cleats would get so hot you had to put padding in the shoes to keep your feet from getting burned.’’
In my view of this team’s history, what became referred to as the “Twins Way’’ – first with admiration, then with cynicism – was born during those couple of months of post-Labor Day steam in Florida with the teaming of Tom Kelly and Rick Stelmaszek, Kelly and Stelly, for the first time.
It was a formula of staff members who wouldn’t be outworked, who would pound the fundamentals of the game into young players for however many hours it took.
It was a theory that pitching had to be protected at all cost by making the plays in the field, that you didn’t give away scoring chances with dumb base running or consistently failing to advance base runners, and that you didn’t flail away trying to pull outside pitches when hits were available in a big, beautiful opposite field.
There was more, but those were some of the famous – and later infamous – guidelines for the Twins Way.
None of it mattered, of course, when the pitching was lousy. I would guess that 38 years ago in Clearwater, Fla., Kelly and Stelly were saying, “It all starts with the pitching; we have to take care of the pitching,’’ and that never changed.
“Pitch to contact’’ has become a phrase used in ridicule by frustrated Twins followers, but it was mostly a theory of throwing strikes with downward movement.
I still remember the spring of 2001, when Joe Mays was throwing on a back field here in The Fort before the exhibition games had started. Mays had pitched in 80 games (48 starts) in two previous losing seasons, where he contributed a 13-26 record with a 4.94 ERA.
Kelly was there to watch this session from Mays and you could detect something rarely seen in a manager entering his 16th full and last season: giddiness.
He had watched Mays’ sinker exploding, shouted out things such as, “That’s it, Joe,’’ and “Great, Joe,’’ and then walked away with a clap of the hands.
It seemed as if Kelly was sure on that late February morning in 2001 that Joe Mays was ready to be something special. And he was, an All-Star, a 17-13 record, a 3.16 ERA and 232 2/3 innings, when the Twins were 85-77 – the summer when the Twins Way was back after a run of eight pitching-poor and losing seasons.
Ron Gardenhire would take over as the manager in 2002 and there were six division titles in the next nine seasons. The Twins were the model for mid-market teams, the outfit that wasn’t going to buy its way to success, but to work its way to success.
The Twins Way.
It wasn’t a joke, as long as there was competent pitching that then could be protected by making the plays in the field.
It all disappeared in 2011. The Twins ent from the team that “played the game the right way’’ to a clown show. That team went 19-50 over the final 11 weeks of the schedule … 19-AND-50.
Take away a blip of respectability in 2015, an 83-79 record in Paul Molitor’s first season as manager, and this has been baseball as wretched to watch as the low-budget, overmatched last four seasons [1997-2000] of the eight-year losing streak.
The 2016 Twins were a complete antithesis of the Twins Way – the team that “played the game the wrong way’’ in every area. The 2016 Twins lost 103 games, and every one of ‘em was deserved.
The work ethic that started with Kelly and Stelly trying to turn a rock into a playing field, and prospects into big leaguers, was gone. There was no vision for where this team was heading, no pride displayed on the field other than at second base.
It was a disgrace to what this team had stood for, to what Kelly and Stelmaszek, and Gardy and rest had tried to instill through all those years – two World Series, six more playoff appearances from 1987 through 2010.
Selmaszek’s 32-year run as the bullpen coach ended after the 2012 season. He is home this spring, trying to fight the good fight against a foe more powerful than the Yankees in the playoffs … pancreatic cancer.
Kelly has elected not to be here in what had become his traditional role of a uniformed helping hand in spring training. He is plagued by bad knees that probably can be traced to a few thousand hours of throwing batting practice.
The Twins lost their way, and now Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are the new baseball leaders with new philosophies, needed for sure, but with a long fix ahead of them.