Twins retire number of former manager Kelly

MINNEAPOLIS — The list of names kept rolling. Former players. Former teammates. Retired numbers. Every one of them holds a place in the hearts of Twins fans, but for one evening, it wasn’t about them.

It could have been monotonous, this name after name after name, long walk after long walk across the same stretch of outfield that current players cover so quickly. But it wasn’t, not really. Not when Tom Kelly was waiting, the final aging legend to wave his way across the grass.

And so Target Field clapped and cheered as Kelly’s number, 10, was retired. It was silent, and it listened. It listened as Kelly spoke, deflecting the praise as anyone who’s followed his career would have expected. Try as they might, the Twins couldn’t make Saturday all about Kelly.

“I just think the game’s about the players,” said Kelly, 62. “I thought I made that pretty clear. If you surveyed the people that come through the gates each night, 30,000, 40,000, whatever it is, and you asked them, ‘Who are you here to see?’ Well, it’s ‘I want to see (Joe) Mauer or (Justin) Morneau. This guy’s pitching tonight. I want to watch (Bert) Blyleven pitch, or (Frank) Viola.’ My wife might come and not say she’s come to see the manager.”

Kelly started his speech by acknowledging his past starters. He closed by thanking past closers. He tried to cleverly divert the attention that was so fixedly focused on him, and in that, the manager with the most wins in Twins history failed.


The two rings sparkled, one on each hand, bigger than his knuckles and just the right kind of conspicuous. Tom Kelly doesn’t wear those rings much. In fact, his wife, Sharon, has hidden them away in their house, and she had to retrieve them for the ceremony. This is a man who just minutes before boasted about the price of his suit — less than $200, and purchased from some hole in the wall next to a tire place. Kelly earned those rings, his 16 seasons as the Twins’ manager paying off with World Series titles in 1987 and 1991.

“If you can’t put them on tonight, when can you put them on?” Kelly asked. “I very rarely (put them on). But this seems to be a special occasion.”

That it was. In addition to having his number retired alongside those of Harmon Killebrew (3), Rod Carew (29), Tony Oliva (6), Kent Hrbek (14), Kirby Puckett (34), Bert Blyleven (28) and Jackie Robinson (42), Kelly also learned Saturday that the Twins had named a practice field at the Lee County Sports Center after him. The Twins play on the newly named Tom Kelly Field during spring training, where Kelly still works with players, and he’d rather talk about it than his honors.

It’s been 11 years since Kelly retired in 2001 after leading the team through its share of struggles and successes and accruing a 1,140-1,244 record. It’s been 11 years, and his mark is still so present. A wall in the Twins’ clubhouse has a Kelly quote — “We’re all in this boat together. Everybody grab an oar.” — posted on it, and that kind of mantra still colors the team’s attitude.


One saying sticks with current manager Ron Gardenhire, who was on Kelly’s staff beginning in 1991: “I don’t care if you give me bad or if you give me good, just give me it all.” It’s the trace of Kelly that he still sees with the club, especially as it struggles in 2012. Play hard. No matter what. Even now.

“All he wanted is everything you had, whether it was good or bad. Just go out and give it,” Gardenhire said. “He talked about that all the time. Sometimes people got it. Some people didn’t. But that’s really what the game’s all about. You have nine innings to go out there and give everything you have, and then you walk away… You hold your head up.”


But even as a clubhouse wall bears his words and Gardenhire quotes him in the dugout, Kelly would still rather talk about that field. Well, fields in general. Even with those rings weighing down his fingers and a tie around his neck, even as the ultimate VIP, Kelly is still more at ease talking about his early days as the manager of the Twins’ Class A affiliate in Visalia, Calif. Instead of talking about the just-ended ceremony, the friends and the speeches and all that applause, Kelly would rather talk about a field from three decades ago.

He painted the stripes, he said, and raked the fields. He took care of the mound. He tells this story as if it were yesterday, and suddenly a conversation about a great manager turns into a lesson on how to treat a pitching mound. Differently for different kinds of pitchers, of course, and when it gets to 110 degrees like it does in Visalia, it’s even more complicated.

It might sound like hard work, even excessive.

“But that’s what you did,” Kelly insisted. “You just did what you had to do. You had to do it. You just had to do it. So you did it.”

Now Kelly has a new field, one bearing his name, and for a man who can’t bear to talk much about himself, he sure can wax poetic about his new namesake.

“It’s very enjoyable to walk out there each morning, especially when you’ve been in the snow here and you get down there and you get to walk out on that field,” Kelly said. “The green grass, it’s so soft after you’ve been blowing snow and shoveling and stuff.”

But it’s more than just that.

“To get down there, and then you look off to the side, and you see all them cars and people at that light making the turn to go to work,” he said. “You think what you’re doing. It’s almost sinful.”


Maybe Kelly was uncomfortable on Saturday, with what he called the “ambush” of recognition. But it had to be the best kind of discomfort, even if he still can’t imagine how his number can be up there on that left field patio in Target Field, right next to Robinson’s. He doesn’t have to understand. Everyone else does.

This isn’t Tom Kelly’s stadium. These aren’t Tom Kelly’s players. But in many ways, this is still Tom Kelly’s team.

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