Born: August 15, 1950
Jay Thomas Kelly was born August 15, 1950 in Graceville, Minnesota and grew up in Sayreville. Tom attended St. Mary’s High School in South Amboy, where he distinguished himself as a hard-hitting corner outfielder with good speed. The Seattle Pilots selected Tom in the 8th round of the 1968 draft. The expansion team was building a farm system from scratch in anticipation of their first season, in 1969.
Tom spent his first season as a pro in Newark, with the Class-A Co-Pilots. At 17, he was the youngest player on the club, but he led the Co-Pilots with a .317 average and 16 stolen bases, and was second with 43 RBIs in 65 games. After two more seasons with the Pilots (who became the Milwaukee Brewers), Tom was released. He was picked up by the Minnesota Twins in 1971. The transaction went virtually unnoticed, yet it would have a profound effect on baseball in the Twin Cities.
Tom became what baseball people call a “Quadruple-A” player, spending several productive seasons with Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League. He had a cup of coffee with the Twins in 1975. They called him up in May and he appeared in 49 games, manning first base for the team until they traded for fellow New Jerseyan Johnny Briggs. Tom was sent back down (as it turned out, for good after the All-Star break. He batted a meager .181 with the Twins and hit one homer, off Verne Ruhle in a loss to the Tigers.
After spending a year in the Orioles organization, Tom returned to the Minnesota fold in 1977 as a player-manager. In 1979, he became a full-time manager with the Twins’ affiliate in Visalia and, in 1983, joined Billy Gardner’s major-league staff as a coach. In September 1986, Tom replaced pitching guru Ray Miller as manager. The Twins were 21 games under .500 when Tom took over; they went 21–11 the rest of the way. The club had established talent in pitchers Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven and the offensive trio of Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and Gary Gaetti. More important, these players were natural leaders.
In 1987, Tom led the Twins to the top of the AL West. Two key additions—leadoff man Dan Gladden and closer Jeff Reardon—helped put them over the top. Under To, the team played solid, fundamental baseball. The Twins defeated the Tigers in the ALCS to win their first pennant since 1965. Each team won all of its home games, with Minnesota taking the final two, 11–5 and 4–2. It was the franchise’s first championship since moving from Washington.
The Twins improved by 6 victories in 1988 but finished second to the A’s. The club struggled the next two seasons, finishing dead last in the AL West in 1990. Tom retooled the club in 1991 with the help of veteran newcomers Jack Morris and Chili Davis, and Rick Aguilera, whom Tom had converted from a starter to a closer after acquiring him from the Mets. The Twins beat the Blue Jays in the ALCS and prevailed in an epic World Series against the Braves—a 7-game series that pitted a pair of worst-to-first ball clubs against each other.
Tom, who was named AL Manager of the Year, was hailed as a genius and miracle worker. His club finished in second place with 90 wins the following year, but age, injuries and a diminishing budget forced the Twins into a rebuilding mode that stretched over a decade. By 2001, the team was back on the winning track, with a solid group of young stars, including Torii Hunter, Cristian Guzman and Johan Santana. Tom decided it was time to move to the front office, and he handed over the reins to Ron Gardenhire. The Twins made the postseason six times over the next nine years.
Tom continued to work for the Twins as an assistant to the GM. He worked as a special instructor in spring training and evaluated talent in the minors. He also subbed for the team’s television announcers at times, drawing high praise for his take on the game. In 2012, the Twins retired Tom’s #10.