Tom Kelly hits jackpot in first full season as Minnesota's manager

Let's be honest about this. You're not going to necessarily meet the real Tom Kelly in this story. The 37-year-old rookie manager of the American League champion Minnesota Twins hasn't been around long enough to have a book on him. I've talked to Kelly this year about as often as I've visited my favorite neighborhood blacksmith. He sits in the dugout during games like a security guard. I hear his wife cuts his hair.

Kelly never knocks other managers or their players. After Minnesota beat heavily favored Detroit in the playoffs, he seemed reluctant during at least one television interview to admit it.

Tom just may be the best manager in baseball this season. His strategy against Detroit was flawless. From the way he used the players against the Tigers, we know he did his homework.

Seldom has a pitching staff been juggled with greater success. In the late innings, Kelly kept putting nearly all his baseballs in the basket of Twins' relief ace Jeff Reardon, who had eight wins and 31 saves during the regular season. In most cases, they couldn't have been safer wrapped in jeweler's cotton.

Kelly hasn't been without his critics. Before the American League playoffs, they kept saying that he could only manage in a plastic environment, like the Minnesota Metrodome, where the Twins perform on a carpet and the inflated Teflon roof stays in place by use of an elaborate air-pressure system.

Until the Twins clinched the league championship by beating Detroit in Tiger Stadium, Minnesota had won only nine road games since the All-Star break in mid-July.

Starting on Saturday, when the World Series opens in Minneapolis, Kelly is going to have more microphones pushed into his face than Perry Mason leaving the courtroom after a murder trial.

Reporters will be taking a short course on the youngest manager in the major leagues.

On the surface, Tom may appear thoroughly Midwestern. He was born in Graceville, Minn., and I'm sure at age 9 or 10 a Flexible Flyer sled was at the top of his Christmas list. He has the model American family, a wife named Mary and a son and a daughter. I wouldn't be surprised if Tom still belonged to a Grange lodge somewhere.

That's the image. The reality, however, is that he grew up in New Jersey and now resides in Parlin, N.J., during the off-season.

His father, Joe, pitched in the New York Giants farm system, and Tom played the outfield during 11 professional seasons, spent almost entirely in the minors in places like Newark, Charlotte, and Tacoma. He made it to Twins for 49 games in 1975, but batted only .181.

During the latter part of his playing career he became a player-manager in the minors and eventually moved up to become third-base coach of the Twins in 1983. He thus became the first native Minnesotan to hold a coaching or managing post with the club.

If this sounds like the stuff of ``Prairie Home Companion,'' so be it.

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