Twins' all-time top managers: Park's take 

June 15th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only.

Twins' All-Time Team: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RHP | LHP | RP

Now we shift to managers. Here is Do-Hyoung Park's ranking of the top skippers in Twins history, since the franchise relocated to Minnesota in 1961.

1. Tom Kelly (1986-2001)
Key fact: Led Twins to the only two World Series championships in club history

Evaluating managers is a fickle task, but fortunately, these Twins are a helpful franchise in that regard, as they have a rather clear top two above a sea of other options. Ron Gardenhire may have led the Twins to the most playoff appearances of any manager in club history, but Kelly, known to most around the Twins simply as "TK," really, really made his only two playoff runs count.

Kelly was the third-base coach on a bad Twins team in 1986 and first inherited the managerial role on an interim basis when Ray Miller was fired only two seasons into the job. Though Kelly didn't have any Major League managerial experience of his own, the Twins installed him as their permanent replacement and put their faith in his track record as a manager in their Minor League system in the late '70s and early '80s and in his skill as a coach on the big league staffs of both Billy Gardner and Miller. That proved one of the most consequential decisions in team history.

Thanks to strong performances from lineup anchors Kent Hrbek, Kirby Puckett and Tom Brunansky and the 1-2 punch of Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola in the starting rotation, the Twins went from sixth in the AL West in '86 all the way to first in '87 despite an abysmal road record. That second half did plenty to energize the fanbase after a brutal stretch of futility following the opening of the Metrodome, and after an upset win over the Tigers in the AL Championship Series, the Twins got the job done in the World Series in a seven-game win over the Cardinals to bring home a title in Kelly's rookie season at the helm.

"I was just trying to survive," Kelly said in an interview with Twin Cities Public Television about the '87 team. "It was my first year as the manager at 36 years old, whatever I was, and I was just trying to do the job and get something accomplished so that I'd have a job. If this didn't work out, I was in trouble. [World Series] thoughts weren't in my mind at all. I was just trying to do good and be a good manager and try to survive."

That core of Puckett and Hrbek once again anchored the '91 team in its World Series run a few years later, and it seemed as though Kelly pulled all the right strings to the very end, including in that legendary Game 7 against the Braves in which he left Jack Morris in to pitch a 10th shutout inning before Gene Larkin came through with his pinch-hit, walk-off, Series-winning RBI single.

That was the last time Kelly made the playoffs. Following that championship, the Twins finished second, sixth, fourth, fifth, fourth, fourth, fourth, fifth, fifth and second in the division as the franchise embarked on an extended tear-down and rebuild. In that time, Kelly showed a good deal of patience and worked with young players in the organization to develop the next winner, and he finally called it quits after the '01 season, his first winning team since 1992.

Kelly's 1,140 wins as manager are the most in club history, and at the time of his retirement following 16 seasons at the helm, he was the longest tenured head coach or manager in North American "Big Four" professional sports.

"It's a true testament to Tom's ability to stay here with the troubles we've had," said former Twins general manager Terry Ryan when Kelly retired. "He certainly had the opportunity to go elsewhere through the years, particularly recently, when we did cut the payroll back. He chose to stay here where he was most comfortable to see it through."

2. Ron Gardenhire (2002-14)
Key fact: Won a club-record six division championships with the Twins

All that building from the end of the Kelly era helped set the stage for all the success to come from his successor. "Gardy" joined Kelly's coaching staff in 1991 and was the third-base coach seen celebrating at the Metrodome as Dan Gladden triumphantly raised his fist in front of him, ran home and leaped on home plate to seal the club's second World Series championship.

When Kelly's tenure at the helm came to an end a decade later, it was Gardenhire who assumed the position, even as questions of contraction swirled around Minnesota and the Twins organization.

Well, baseball stayed in Minneapolis, and it was a good thing, too, since all that rebuilding led to a strong on-field product in those subsequent years, with the Twins immediately winning three straight AL Central titles from 2002-04 as soon as Gardenhire took over as manager thanks to that core of players like Jacque Jones, Torii Hunter, Cristian Guzman, Corey Koskie, Brad Radke and Johan Santana. They went all the way to the ALCS in 2002, kicking off a stretch of five straight seasons of winning baseball under Gardenhire's watchful eye.

Enter the "Piranhas." Gardenhire's small-ball strategies and some of the players that made their mark on the franchise in that era -- Luis Castillo, Jason Tyner, Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett come to mind -- actually worked quite well in that time, out of place as many of those strategies and lineup compositions would seem in today's modern game. Those defensively minded, scrappy, light-hitting clubs became the hallmark of many a Gardenhire team in the late Metrodome era, encompassing his association with fan-favorite Twins memories like "Game 163" in 2009.

Six AL Central titles in Gardenhire's first nine seasons did plenty to earn him a place in Twins history. The likable personality and flamboyant (and frequent) ejections helped, too. In hindsight, modern lineup construction probably wouldn't allow for Punto or Alexi Casilla to have so many at-bats in the No. 2 position again, but under Gardy's watch, the Twins won plenty of games -- and that kept consistent winning baseball around the Upper Midwest, though his Twins never could get over that AL Division Series hump, ducking out in the first round in each of the five trips to the postseason following that '02 ALCS run.

Gardenhire moved across downtown Minneapolis to Target Field with the club in 2010 and won his final AL Central title, but the club cratered to last place in '11 and stayed near the bottom for four straight seasons, leading to his dismissal in '14. When he left the organization for the first time since 1988, he ranked second in Twins history with 1,068 wins as manager.

"He connected with me and our family way more than any single person in our entire career as owners of the team," said Twins owner Jim Pohlad upon Gardenhire's departure. "He's just a special guy. He's loved. He's loved by us. I'll always remember him as a winner."

3. Sam Mele (1961-67)
Key fact: Led the 1965 team that won the first AL pennant in Minnesota

Kelly and Gardenhire are clearly in a class of their own in Twins managerial history, and the only other skipper that could make it onto this list is the next up in terms of wins (after a massive gap) in Mele, who remains the only other leader in club history to last more than five full seasons as manager.

Mele wasn't the skipper when the franchise first arrived in Minneapolis in 1961, but he earned the gig soon enough, first taking over for the incumbent Cookie Lavagetto during an odd "furlough" period, as recounted by Star Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse, before eventually taking over altogether following an eventful stretch of decision-making from owner and general manager Calvin Griffith.

Under Mele, the Twins surged to a pair of 91-win seasons in 1962 and '63 -- having Harmon Killebrew, Zoilo Versalles, Bob Allison, Jim Kaat and Camilo Pascual certainly helped -- and that success reached its peak in '65, when Versalles went supernova in his MVP season, a young Tony Oliva won his second straight batting title and the Twins saw more of Mudcat Grant and Jim Perry in the starting rotation. They won 102 games that year -- still a club record -- and reached the first World Series in club history, losing in seven games to Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers.

Despite all that success, Mele was gone less than two years later, replaced by Cal Ermer midway through the 1967 season -- during which the Twins actually won 91 games. Still, in that relatively short time, Mele accumulated 524 wins, good for third in club history.

"Sam was perfect for us at that time," Kaat said to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "There wasn’t a lot of overmanaging in those days. They just threw the ball out and let you play, and Sam did that and it was the best thing for us."

Honorable mention

Rocco Baldelli is only one year into his managerial tenure, and based on the returns of his first season at the helm -- 101 wins, a division title and an AL Manager of the Year Award -- it goes to figure that even a handful more of strong seasons will start catapulting him up this list. From his focus on player rest, recovery and nutrition to his seamless work and partnership with a forward-thinking front office, Baldelli is the image of the successful modern manager. ... Paul Molitor also won the AL Manager of the Year Award and led the team to second-place finishes in the AL Central in three of his four seasons at the helm of his hometown team.