Tom Kelly 1991 Topps and Ron Gardenhire 2007 Topps – Sully Baseball Cards of the Day for October 13, 2017

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Between the end of the 1986 season and the end of the 2014 season, the Minnesota Twins had 2 managers. 29 seasons plus a few weeks and the manager office was filled by either Tom Kelly or Ron Gardenhire.

Both managed a small market team that people felt was unable to compete. Both had success.

Tom Kelly has a statue at Target Field. Gardenhire got fired.

Which manager was the better Twins skipper?

The easy answer to that would be Kelly. After all, the Twins have won a grand total of two World Series titles since arriving from Washington DC (the franchise as the Senators won the 1924 title.) Both of those World Series titles were managed by Kelly.

They were the high water marks for the team’s history, one being an unlikely band of veterans and the other winning one of the classic World Series in baseball history.

Gardenhire never won a pennant, much less a World Series. His Twins advanced a grand total of one time. So point, set match to Kelly, right?

Well, not so fast. Let’s take a look at the two.

Kelly was born in Minnesota and went to high school and college in New Jersey. He was drafted by the doomed Seattle Pilots in 1968 and after toiling in the minor league for years, he played 43 games as an infielder for the 1975 Twins.

After a few more years on the farm, he became a minor league manager in the Twins organization and in 1983 became a coach for Billy Gardner at the big league level. When Gardner got axed towards the end of 1986, Kelly took over.

Other than the acquisition of Jeff Reardon to shore up the bullpen, there was little reason to be optimistic about Minnesota’s chances in 1987.

The team jumped out to a 12-9 start and had an excellent June. But combined May, July and August, they were a sub .500 team. That didn’t seem to matter as the AL West was subpar up and down. The team was in first place for much of the season.

On August 29, 1987, the Twins and the Oakland A’s were tied for first place. Kansas City was just 3 games back and the Angels were 3 1/2 back.

The Twins finished the season 17-14 for an 85-77 record, 2 games ahead of the Royals. They would have been in 5th place in the AL East, but they were the champs of the AL West.

The team had a wildly disproportionate amount of wins at home and, despite having the worst record of any post season team, had home field advantage in the ALCS over the Tigers and the World Series over the Cardinals.

The Twins won it all and give them credit for beating teams that were, at least in the win loss column, superior. But they did go 6-0 at home and 2-3 on the road. It was one of great World Series flukes in history.

After some lean years and the rise of the Oakland A’s, the Twins hit rock bottom in 1990. Jack Morris came home to Minnesota after the 1990 season and the Twins rebounded.

The Twins squad with a handful of leftovers from 1987 were 7 games under .500 on April 20 and were a sub .500 team as late as June 1. They were in last place at that point and it was another lost year.

Led by Morris and Kirby Puckett, the Twins went 75-43 the rest of the way to capture the AL West crown, finishing 8 games ahead of the White Sox.

They made quick work of Toronto in 5 games and then locked horns with the Braves in one of the best World Series of all time. The Twins won 1-0 in the 10th inning of Game 7 and Kelly had 2 World Series titles in 5 years.

Leo Durocher had one World Series title. So did Earl Weaver. Tom Kelly has two and did so when he was only 40 years old. He was named AL Manager of the Year.

The Twins won 90 games in 1992 but fell short to the A’s in the AL West. After that, the Twins went on a steady slide. 8 straight seasons of losing ball was played in a frequently half empty Metrodome.

Rumors swirled around about the team moving to North Carolina. Ownership slashed payroll. During the 1990’s as big market teams swallowed up free agents, the Twins traded players away for pennies on the dollar.

In 2001, the Twins somehow managed to win 85 games and contend for much of the year before falling short in the AL Central. Suddenly he had a new cast of talented players. But the 50 year old Kelly was burnt out.

10 years after his second World Series and after 15 plus years at the helm, he called it quits.

Coach Ron Gardenhire stepped in and right away was in the hornet’s next. Forget not contending. Forget not signing free agents. The Twins were going to not even exist. The specter of contraction was real. The Montreal Expos were the first clear team to eliminate. And ownership for the Twins seemed willing to cash the check and be bought out and no longer exist.

Public backlash and union pressure caused MLB to step back, but the dark cloud hung over Minnesota. The Twins were on life support. They could not compete in a crumbling stadium and paltry payroll.

But they won 5 of their first 6 games. On May 2, they climbed into first place by themselves. By June 10, they were 6 games up. By July 15th, their lead was 10 games. Forget contraction. This team was thinking post season.

There was no AL Central race as the Twins cruised to a 13 1/2 lead and finished 94-67. Nobody noticed because the AL looked like it was going to be a showdown between the Yankees and the Moneyball A’s in the ALCS. But the Angels stunned the Yankees in the Division Series and Minnesota won a wild 5 game set with Oakland.

When Joe Mays won Game 1 of the ALCS, the image of Minnesota winning the pennant a year after contraction threats became real. But the Angels went on to win the ALCS and eventually the World Series.

What followed was a renaissance in Minnesota. Three straight Division Titles and unlike 1987, all of them were 90 wins or more. The team won the Division on the last day of the 2006 season, lost a one game playoff in 2008 and took a dramatic extra inning one game playoff in 2009, the final year in the Metrodome.

In 2010, the Twins christened a brand new stadium, Target Field, with their 6th Division Title in 9 seasons. Forget not being able to compete. They punched tickets for October every year. Forget moving and contraction, they were in a new ballpark. MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were on the team as was Cy Young winner Johan Santana.

Ron Gardenhire, a former reserve infielder, won the Manager of the Year in 2010, a crowning achievement for turning the fortunes of his franchise around.

And nobody remembers that. They lost the Division Series in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010. The last three times they were swept. Twice they had home field advantage and got swept.

Nobody remembers teams that lose the first round. It is incredible that a team that had the hangman’s noose over the entire franchise would have a fan base that a few years later would be blase about winning a division title.

Gardenhire clashed with modern analytics and eventually lost the club, paving the way for Hall of Famer Paul Molitor to take over.

Both managers had tugs of war with management over budget and the roster. Both had to make over their rosters quickly. Gardenhire had the better winning percentage and took more teams to the post season.

But he never won the big one, and Kelly did that twice.

It is a healthy debate and is safe to say the Twins managerial job was in good hands for nearly 3 decades. Now it is Paul Molitor’s turn.

Greg Gagne 1987 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for March 20, 2017

The 1980’s were a strange time for the New York Yankees. They did not win a World Series in a decade for the first time and they had a hard time developing a new young core.

Sure Don Mattingly and Dave Righetti came of age in that decade. But young pitching stars like Jose Rijo and Doug Drabek were shipped off as were young bats like Fred McGriff and Willie McGee for veterans who did not help their cause.

George Steinbrenner’s impulsiveness was always in the way.

With Bucky Dent, hero of 1978 fading, the Yankees also had a revolving door of shortstops. As always, the team coveted proven veterans in place of young up and comers.

Greg Gagne was a young prospect in the Yankees farm system from Massachusetts. At the start of the 1982 season, he joined the parade of talented future big leaguers who would be dealt away. He was sent to the Twins for Roy Smalley, an established big leaguer.

By 1985 he was the starting shortstop of the Twins at age 23 while the Yankees were still struggling to fill the void in the infield.

Steady but hardly spectacular, Gagne provided some pop at short in an era where they were expected to field and not hit much. He would smack double digit homers and get his share of doubles and triples as the Twins formed a slugging team that resembled a beer league.

He hit a pair of inside the park homers on October 4, 1986, being just the second person since 1930 to achieve that feat.

In 1987, the Twins shockingly made the post season. Gagne homered twice in the ALCS win over the Tigers, posting a 1.187 OPS. He also homered in the World Series against St. Louis and the Twins won the franchise’s first World Series title since they were the Washington Senators in 1924.

Former Yankees Joe Niekro and George Frazier were also on that team. Also on that team? Roy Smalley, who was reacquired by Minnesota. Being a Twin was an easier path to a World Series than being a Yankee.

That was the case in 1991 when the 29 year old Gagne was once again starting in the World Series. (The Yankees had not appeared in a Series at that point since dealing away Gagne. )

He hit a key homer in Game 1 of the World Series, helping give the Twins the win over Atlanta. The two would play one of the great World Series in baseball history with the Twins coming out on top.

He bounced between the Royals and Dodgers between 1993 and 1997, making the post season again with Los Angeles in 1996.

That was the year the Yankees finally DID win a World Series title. They did so with a lot of homegrown players including a young shortstop named Jeter.

Maybe they would have made it back to the World Series sooner if they held onto a few of their homegrown players.

I’m just saying.

Don Baylor 1988 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day For February 21, 2017

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Don Baylor made quite an impression on me when I started following baseball. It could be that the first year I REALLY followed the game day in and day out was 1979, the year Baylor won the MVP as a member of the California Angels.

But another thing caught my attention. Starting in 1978, before I really understood the day in and day out flow of a baseball season, I used to look at the backs of baseball cards and see the pattern of how they listed the teams a player played for.

On the back it would say “Year” and “Club” and list a bunch of teams. I would call it the “year club” and I would buy a pack of cards and say out loud “I want to see his year club.”

The year club for Reggie Jackson fascinated me. He was the biggest star in baseball in 1978 and in my mind he was as much a Yankee as Fred Lynn, Yaz, Fisk and Jim Rice were Red Sox. But Lynn, Yaz, Fisk, Rice and Evans only had Red Sox in their Year Club. Reggie had mostly the A’s, one year with the Orioles then with the Yankees.

Then I discovered Don Baylor’s year club. He had many years with the Orioles, one year with the A’s and then off to the Angels. I remember seeing that and thinking “It is like a reverse Reggie Jackson” back in 1978.

Little did I know how close I was.

Baylor, aka Groove, was from Texas and drafted into Earl Weaver’s Baltimore juggernaut. He was the right handed slugger would fill the void left by the departure of Frank Robinson. In 1972, he was a starting outfielder in Baltimore and had power and speed. By 1973 and 1974, he brought his stolen base ability and pop into the post season as the Orioles won back to back divisions but lost to the A’s, and Reggie Jackson, in the ALCS.

By 1975, Baylor had blossomed into a star. The 26 year old combined 25 homers and 32 stolen bases and got MVP consideration for the first time. Then he got caught in the crosshairs of baseball labor.

Reggie Jackson was eligible for the new status of Free Agent after the 1976 season. The A’s and Charlie Finley decided that signing him to a long term contract was not an option. So he needed to get SOMETHING for his star. So, during spring training of 1976, Jackson was bundled in a trade that sent him to Baltimore. Among the players who came back to Oakland was Don Baylor.

The A’s contended late into the season but their streak of consecutive Division Titles ended at 5. Baylor was going to test free agency himself and signed with the Angels. So while Reggie’s “Year Club” had many years in Oakland, one year in Baltimore and then off to the Yankees, Baylor’s had many years in Baltimore, one year in Oakland and then off to the Angels. They mirrored each other.

Baylor, who consistently led the league in hit by pitches, started clubbing homers left and right. By 1979, he became one of the best run producers in the American League. He led the league in runs and RBI. He homered 36 times, stole 22 bases and posted career highs in average and OPS.

The Angels made the post season for the first time that year and Baylor took home the MVP. Of course the voters today would probably have picked someone else. The Sabermetric crowd would not have put him in the top 20. Bobby Grich had the better all around season for the Angels. But in 1979, people looked at homers, RBI, average and if the team made the playoffs, so the award went to Baylor.

In 1982, Baylor and Reggie Jackson became teammates for the first time as Reggie left the Yankees to join the Angels. That year, along with Fred Lynn, Rod Carew, Bobby Grich and Doug Decinces, the Baylor and Jackson combination pushed the Angels back into the playoffs. At this point, Baylor was a fulltime DH. He did not play a single game in the field during the 1982 season.

In the 5 game ALCS, Baylor drove in 10 runs by himself, including a grand slam in Game 4. But the Brewers came back from a 2-0 hole to win the series in 5, preventing Baylor from making the World Series.

He went to Free Agency again and wound up with the Yankees in 1983. Now think about his Year Club. A bunch of years with the Orioles, one with the A’s, then some glory years with the Angels and off to the Yankees. That, save one year overlap in California, perfectly mirrored Reggie Jackson’s bunch of years with the A’s, one with the Orioles, then some glory years with the Yankees and off to the Angels.

After a few years clashing with Steinbrenner while still homering, Baylor made it to 1985 with still no appearances in the World Series.

Then the “Year Club” deviated from Reggie for the first time. The Yankees and Red Sox swapped DH’s as Mike Easler went from Fenway to the Bronx. The idea was Easler’s left handed swing was better suited for Yankee Stadium while Baylor’s right handed bat would take aim at the Green Monster.

For what it is worth, Baylor’s prescience in the club house seemed to have as much an effect as the 31 homers he clubbed. The disjointed “24 men 24 cab” culture seemed to change with Baylor and his Kanagroo court. The Red Sox took control of the Division early in the year and won the first AL East since 1975.

Baylor made his mark in the ALCS, hitting the 2 run homer that set up Dave Henderson’s season saving homer off of Donnie Moore. The Red Sox won the pennant and Baylor saw his first World Series.

He wasn’t much of a factor in the World Series as Bill Buckner famously played at first base over Baylor. We all know what happened in the World Series.

In 1987, the Red Sox went into a transition season. New hitters like Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks, Sam Horn and Todd Benzinger started to get playing time. Veterans Bill Buckner and Dave Henderson were sent packing to make room for the new sluggers.

At the end of August, it was Don Baylor’s time to be shipped off to Minnesota, who were making a surprise post season push. That trade led to this Topps card with a sloppy airbrushed hat.

In the post season as a part time DH, Baylor made the most of his brief career cameo in Minnesota. His RBI hit Game 1 of the ALCS helped set up the Twins come from behind victory. His three run homer in a do or die Game 6 of the World Series against the Cardinals helped force a 7th game. In the end he batted .389 in that October posting an OPS of 1.032.

The Twins held on to win Game 7 and take the World Series title, the first one earned in Baylor’s career.

He returned to Oakland in 1988 as a platoon DH but clearly no longer was the feared slugger he once was. He did play in the post season and got an at bat in the 1988 World Series. That made him the first player to play in three straight World Series with three different teams (since matched by Eric Hinske.)

His final appearance as a player was striking out in the 1988 World Series. Afterwards he a long career of managing and coaching, being the original manager of the Rockies and leading the Cubs during Sammy Sosa’s peak.

One last note about his “Year Club.” When he returned to the A’s, he was replacing the outgoing DH. Who was the A’s DH in 1987? That would be Reggie Jackson. They just kept mirroring each other.