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.