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.

Paul Sorrento 1990 Topps Traded – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for April 11, 2017

IMG_9708The setting is Portland, Oregon. The time is just before the 1991 baseball season.

Paul Sorrento, a top prospect for the Minnesota Twins, is sent down to start the season at Triple-A Portland despite having a tremendous season there in 1990. Depressed that he couldn’t make the roster of the last-place Twins, he goes to a fortune teller.

SORRENTO: I need to know, am I going to finish this season in the majors?

The Fortune Teller looks into her ball.

FORTUNE TELLER: I see…I see you in a very strange place in the fall.

SORRENTO: Where?

FORTUNE TELLER: It is a building. It has a canvas roof and something that looks like a blue trash bag covering up folded up seats.

SORRENTO: The Metrodome! So I am going to be in Minnesota. When?

FORTUNE TELLER: It looks like the fall.

Sorrento shakes his head.

SORRENTO: Man, I have to wait to be a September call-up?

FORTUNE TELLER: No. Not September. It is October.

SORRENTO: October? That’s impossible, the Twins were in last place last year.

FORTUNE TELLER: But I hear people saying a phrase over and over again. “Worst to first.” And “Fall Classic.”

Sorrento’s jaw drops.

SORRENTO: The Twins are going to the World Series?

FORTUNE TELLER: Yes. And you are there.

SORRENTO: What happens?

FORTUNE TELLER: I hear people say it is amazing series. Maybe the best ever.

SORRENTO: Do the Twins win?

FORTUNE TELLER: I see…I see a celebration. Someone has won the game for them.

SORRENTO: Did the Twins win?

FORTUNE TELLER: I see a crowd waving handkerchiefs indoors.

SORRENTO: Holy Crap! That’s a Twins win!

FORTUNE TELLER: Yes. I hear the two words: “Game” and “Seven.”

SORRENTO: Wow.

FORTUNE TELLER: And “series-ending pinch hit”.

SORRENTO: Who? Who is it?

FORTUNE TELLER: It is all unclear. There are no names on the back of the Twins’ uniforms. The numbers are hazy.

SORRENTO: What do you SEE?

FORTUNE TELLER: I see someone throwing a ball. Then he is walking away. He looks sad. He has a name on his back.

SORRENTO: That’s the pitcher. What is his name?

FORTUNE TELLER: Peña.

SORRENTO: Peña. Who got the hit?

FORTUNE TELLER: He is standing on the left side.

SORRENTO: Yes?

FORTUNE TELLER: It is very unclear. I hear a phrase. “Seldom-used first baseman.”

Sorrento covers his mouth.

SORRENTO: Oh my God. Tell me more!

FORTUNE TELLER: What does “playing time blocked by Hrbek” mean?

SORRENTO: It means me! Tell me anything more!

FORTUNE TELLER: I’m losing the image. I hear fragments. “Unlikely hero.” “Game Seven.” “Pinch hitting for the pinch runner.” “Series-ending pinch hit.” “Native Northeasterner.”

SORRENTO: That’s me! I was born in Somerville, Massachusetts! I’m a native Northeasterner! I hit on the left side of the plate! I’m a first baseman whose playing time is blocked by Kent Hrbek! I’m going to win the World Series on a hit off of Peña! That must be Alejandro Peña of the Mets.

FORTUNE TELLER: Mets… I don’t hear Mets. Perhaps Atlanta?

SORRENTO: Atlanta? That’s not likely. One last-place team going to the World Series is one thing. Two?

FORTUNE TELLER: Once again. It is cloudy.

Sorrento leaves and finds it amusing, but stops believing once the opponent is revealed to be Atlanta.

During the year, the Twins surprise everyone and surge past Oakland into first place. On July 1, Sorrento is called up to the bigs. But his playing time is blocked by Hrbek, and he is sent back down. On Aug. 28, the surprising Atlanta Braves acquire Alejandro Peña to be their bullpen closer for the stretch run. This catches Sorrento’s attention. Was the fortune teller onto something?

Sorrento was recalled for the stretch run and added to the playoff roster. Sitting on the bench, he kept wondering, “Would I come up against Alejandro Peña with the World Series on the line?” But he brushed it aside as coincidence. Who can believe a fortune teller?

He struck out as a pinch hitter in Game Three of the ALCS against Toronto and celebrated with the team two days later as they clinched the pennant. He looked around at all the veterans on the team. Puckett, Hrbek, Pagliarulo, Gagne, Davis, Harper and Gladden… could SORRENTO become the biggest hero of them all? When Atlanta became their National League opponent, Sorrento got spooked. Peña was the closer. Was it all coming together?

Sorrento made two pinch-hit appearances in the World Series but wasn’t a factor in the first six games. Then came Game Seven. Hrbek got the start. Sorrento looked around. Hankies waving. Could this be what the fortune teller saw?

The game was scoreless through six, then seven. After eight innings, it was clear that the Twins could only win with a game-ending hit. Mike Stanton had relieved John Smoltz. There was no way Sorrento, a left-handed hitter, would pinch hit against Stanton.

The ninth inning began with a leadoff hit by Chili Davis. The run that would win the 1991 World Series was on base. Whomever could knock in that run, represented by pinch runner Jarvis Brown, would be the hero.

Brian Harper bunted off Stanton, who injured himself on the play. Bobby Cox replaced Stanton with Alejandro Peña. Sorrento froze. There were too many coincidences. His moment of glory could be coming.

Shane Mack hit into a double play and third baseman Mike Pagliarulo was walked to pitch to Al Newman, who had pinch run for Randy Bush in the eighth.

Minnesota manager Tom Kelly looked down the bench and called, “Sorrento! You’re batting for Newman!”

Sorrento had the biggest grin in Minnesota. He knew what was going to happen. It was foretold.

Up he strode to the plate and looked up at the waving hankies and the baggie over the right field seats. Here he was, the Native Northeasterner seldom used first baseman who was blocked by Hrbek, in Game Seven pinch hitting for the pinch runner and facing Alejandro Pena. Now all that was left was to deliver the series-ending hit and become the unlikely hero. He was remarkably calm at the plate. Fate was going to deliver this hit.

The count got to 0-2, but there was a grin on his face. Pena threw the 0-2 pitch. Sorrento gave a mighty cut, the cut that would end the World Series and put his name among the great heroes of the game.

But he missed. It was a strikeout. The game went into extra innings.

Scott Leius went into shortstop. Sorrento’s game and season were over. Slumped on the bench, he wondered, “What the hell happened? Everything was aligned perfectly.” Looking up in the 10th inning, he saw the Twins rallying. With the bases loaded and Peña on the mound, it was Brown’s turn to bat. He was the pinch runner from the earlier inning. Instead, Kelly called over to Gene Larkin to pinch hit.

Sorrento nodded. Larkin was a seldom-used first baseman. He was blocked by Hrbek. And here he was pinch hitting for the pinch runner in Game Seven against Alejandro Peña. On the first pitch, Larkin drove a ball to left field for the series-ending pinch hit to make him an unlikely World Series hero.

Sorrento celebrated with his teammates and made his way over to Larkin.

SORRENTO: Geno. I need to ask you something.

LARKIN: What?

SORRENTO: Where were you born?

LARKIN: What?

SORRENTO: I just need to know.

LARKIN: Flushing, Queens. I’m a Native Northeasterner. Why do you ask?

SORRENTO: I know a fortune teller in Portland that you should see.

(This was originally posted in 2011 by me on Hardball Times.)

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.