Mackey: Tom Kelly's influence on Twins began with laundry and a rake
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It's not that Tom Kelly doesn't appreciate the honor of having his No. 10 jersey retired.
In fact, quite the opposite.
Kelly was overwhelmed with emotion when the Minnesota Twins "ambushed" him with the news, as he puts it, at the Diamond Awards last offseason.
Kelly just feels uncomfortable in the spotlight. He doesn't like talking about himself or his accomplishments.
Heck, he barely considers his accomplishments his accomplishments.
"I just think the game's about the players," Kelly said, fidgeting with his 1987 World Series ring -- or was it the 1991 ring on his other hand? -- while sitting in the Target Field dining room shortly after a 60-minute ceremony that included the presence of more than 150 friends, family members, current players, former players, and others.
"If you surveyed people that come through them gates each night, 30,000, 40,000, whatever it is, and you asked them, 'Who are you here to see?' 'Well, I might want to see Mauer, or Morneau, this guy's pitching tonight, I might want to watch Blyleven pitch, or Viola.' My wife might come and not say she wants to watch the manager. She wants to watch the game. She keeps score of the game. She's not here to see the manager. She's here to watch the game. ...
"I just don't think that way. I never have."
Kelly's stance is humble, and genuine.
But he's wrong.
Well, he's right in the sense that nobody pays admission to watch managers, except for maybe Ozzie Guillen.
He's wrong if he humbly believes his influence on the Twins organization isn't great enough to deserve the team's ultimate honor.
Ironically, the stories Kelly tells about his early days as a minor league manager signify just how much managers do matter.
Now, that's not to say a good or great manager can overcome bad pitching or bad front office moves. Kelly found that out in the mid-90's, and Ron Gardenhire is finding it out now. And it doesn't mean a bad manager can't ride the coattails of great players.
Players ultimately decide wins and losses over the course of a six-month season, but Kelly started laying bricks in the Twins organization 35 years ago.
From 1978 through 1980, Kelly managed the Twins' Single-A affiliate in Visalia, California -- a city 45 miles south of Fresno.
Nowadays, minor league teams usually have multiple hands on deck to help run things -- a manager, pitching coach, hitting coach, trainer, etc.
In the late-70's, the manager was basically on his own.
"We didn't have a clubhouse man or anything," said Kelly, who, as a 28-year-old at the time, would vacuum and sweep the clubhouse every morning before players showed up.
"We did laundry. We had one washer -- a washing machine and a dryer. I would throw one load in, and then we'd take the kids down to the corner. Right across the street, basically, there was a Laundromat. We'd throw a load in there, or two, and then I'd walk across kitty corner to the convenience store -- there was a liquor store, you could buy ice cream and stuff in there, junk food -- and I'd get the kids an ice cream. Then I'd go back and get the wash out and throw it in the dryer, then go back to the ballpark, walk across to the ballpark, take the wash out, put it in the dryer, put another load in and finish up. Then we'd take that, come back in the morning, and then I'd clean the clubhouse -- Coke bottles, whatever. ...
"But that's what you did. You didn't have any coaches. You were by yourself. Some players would help push the cage. ... You just did what you had to do. You had to do it. It was part of the deal. You'd warm up the pitcher, because sometimes you only had one catcher. The other guy's got a sore finger or something, so you'd have to warm up the pitcher. You did the things you had to do. That's the way it was. I wasn't the only one."
For the record, Visalia did have a trainer in those days. Kind of.
"We had a college kid that would come over," Kelly said. "He certainly knew how to tape an ankle or put some hot stuff on or stuff like that, but he wasn't going to... Not like they are now..."
During those seasons with Visalia, Kelly managed a young Scott Ullger, who hit .320/.439/.535 with 20 home runs and 108 RBIs in 1978. He also managed a 22-year-old Tim Laudner in 1980.
And there were advantages to being a one-man band, of sorts.
"Before the game we would help put the lines down, we raked the field," Kelly said. "Depending on who was pitching, it depends how much water I would put out in front of home plate to slow the ball down. If I had a sinker-baller pitching, somebody who sinked the ball pretty good, I would soak it. I would soak it at night before I left, because he was pitching. I would soak it so it was mud.
"And it's tough in Visalia, because it got to be 110 degrees during the day, and it would dry, but I'd soak it. And then when we came back I'd soak it again. And if it was somebody that was more of a fly-ball pitcher I would leave it alone."
In 1982, Kelly managed the Twins' Double-A affiliate in Orlando -- a team that included 20-year-old shortstop Greg Gagne and a handful of other future major leaguers.
The minor league seasons were split into two halves, and Orlando, sitting on a four-game lead over the Charlotte O's in the Eastern Division of the Southern League, traveled to Charlotte for a four-game series to end the first half of the schedule.
Orlando lost the first two games of the series and saw the lead slip to two.
"Now in the meantime," Kelly said, "I walk, get up in the morning, I walk around town. ... You'd go walk around just to clear your head and get some exercise, instead of sitting in the room. ...
"So, as I'm walking, I walk down the street -- two, three blocks, whatever it is -- and sit down. I'll never forget that. And I hear these loud noises, and I'm looking, thinking, 'What?'"
Kelly stood up, walked over and peered into the window of this industrial building.
"The windows are all open," he said. "And those people are sweating, they've got the fans going, and they're sewing, and their hands are going, there's stuff on their heads.
"I said, 'Son of a... Look what I'm doing.' I'm just managing a team. I work, but this is... Eight hours? Woof... So I said, 'OK...'"
Later in the day, Kelly loaded his players on the team bus to head over to the ballpark.
"The bus driver pulled it down the street. I said, 'Stop. Everybody off.' Everybody gets off. I said, 'Everybody, look in the windows. Look! See what's going on?'"
The players looked inside to see workers sweating and grinding away for a paycheck in the summer heat. The message was simple: If you want to play a game for a living, you'd better not take your current opportunity for granted.
"Boy, we kicked their ass the next two nights," Kelly said. "We kicked their ass. Oh god... We buried them. ... They got a look at that and said, 'Wait a minute, we've got to do something different here. Maybe we should try to elevate our game a touch."