Tom Kelly gets a little overwhelmed by number retirement

Tom Kelly has never been one for the spotlight.

The former Minnesota Twins manager famously remained in the dugout and watched his players celebrated World Series titles in 1987 and 1991.

So when Kelly learned Thursday that his No. 10 would be retired by the organization, he was moved. And then he quickly moved … right off of the stage. Check it out here.

That is vintage Kelly. Not a word. And even on that tiny YouTube-sized video, you can tell from the expression on his face how much the news meant to him.

I’ll admit that my initial reaction upon reading about Kelly’s number being retired was, “Do the Twins retire TOO many numbers?” The Twins just recently retired Bert Blyleven’s number. Kelly marks the seventh member of the Twins to receive the honor.

I’ve long admired the Boston Red Sox’s firm policy on number retirement. While it’s loosened up some in recent years, they also have seven, yet the BoSox have been around for more than 100 years.

But when I saw Kelly motor off the stage like he did Thursday night, I started to get excited for Tom Kelly Day in September. Two World Series titles. Why not? Hang that No. 10 in Target Field.

Annual Ballpark Tour 2012 is set

Back by (my own) popular demand …

My annual Major League Baseball stadium tour is starting to get planned for the 2012 season, and I’m excited for this one.

A couple of friends and I have decided this summer to head out to big league parks in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Toronto. That marks the most parks reached on a single trip.

Fenway Park is where the ol' Ballpark Tour started.

These ballpark tours have taken on a variety of forms dating back to my first one in 2007. Appropriately, it all began that year with Fenway Park in Boston with my youngest brother. Other trips have landed me in major league stadiums in Seattle, Chicago (Wrigley and U.S. Cellular), Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City and Denver.

No doubt the stadium that I’m most looking forward to seeing in this summer’s trip is Pittsburgh’s. PNC Park has long been my favorite one to see on TV. I can’t wait to get a look at the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the Pittsburgh skyline from the seats behind the home plate area. Just an awesome park.

Pittsburgh may be the best stadium, but I think Toronto is the city that I’m most looking forward to. Seems to be no shortage of things to do there, and if you’re a sports buff like I am, there’s no shortage of iconic hockey stops to make.

Always nice to have something in the summer to look forward to. Helps you forget about winter, even a mild winter like this one.

Love gives Wolves a chance, which is all they can ask for

Prior to the start of the season, I didn’t think Kevin Love would be willing to sign a contract extension with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

That would have been a huge loss to a Twin Cities fan base, much of which is still bitter about the Kevin Garnett trade of a few years ago. Love is one of the best post players in the NBA, and the Wolves could ill afford to let the restricted-free-agent-to-be get away.

Turn the calendar back to August, and it just didn’t seem like he was staying. But after signing a four-year contract extension with the team on Wednesday, Love has agreed to stick around as the Wolves try to climb out of the rebuilding process.

Timberwolves forward Kevin Love scored 31 points on Wednesday. Associated Press

So what has changed in the last few months?

Well, the new collective bargaining agreement helps to a degree. Nobody knew what direction the CBA was headed in during the lockout. But there are still financial benefits to players who choose to re-sign with their teams.

What has also helped is the improvement on the court. The Wolves now have a proven head coach in Rick Adelman and a flashy point guard in Ricky Rubio. An 8-10 record may not sound impressive, but it’s a vast improvement from last year’s 17-65 showing. The team is not a playoff contender yet, but it does have a pulse again.

Fans have been patient with the organization for awhile, and that patience is starting to show signs of paying off. The Wolves are young, and thus, inconsistent. But they have some impressive wins under their belts, including two against the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. The Wolves beat the Mavs again on Wednesday, just hours after Love signed his new contract.

It’s worth noting that Love’s four-year deal does have an opt-out clause after three years. But that really doesn’t matter. He is giving the Wolves a chance to become playoff contenders and maybe more over the next few years, and considering where the organization has been, that’s all it can ask for.

Fielder’s addition separates AL Central field

Prince Fielder finally was given his big free-agent contract. And from the looks of it, the deal was well worth the wait.

Fielder and the Detroit Tigers agreed to a nine-year, $214 million deal on Tuesday, giving a boost to an offense that had recently lost the services of DH/catcher Victor Martinez for the season due to an ACL tear.

Even without Martinez, I figured the Tigers would remain favorites in an AL Central that has the Minnesota Twins down and the Chicago White Sox in rebuilding mode. But with Fielder on board, Detroit has a dynamic 1-2 lumber punch in Fielder and Miguel Cabrera to go with a solid pitching staff anchored by Justin Verlander.

Prince Fielder is going to Motown. Associated Press photo

So where does this leave the Twins?

I think they will be an improved team in 2012, assuming Minnesota isn’t snakebit with injuries the way they were last season. But I don’t see the Twins competing for the AL Central title in 2012. Unless they jump in and grab Roy Oswalt, I expect Minnesota to be a middle-of-the-road team this season.

Sano heads list of top Twins prospects

I dug up a little lunch-hour reading for those of you out there working hard on your last day before the weekend.

Baseball America published Friday its list of the top 10 prospects in the Minnesota Twins system. The list is available here.

It’s only another month before pitchers and catchers report to big league spring training, and I’m starting to get ready for baseball season. The summer ballpark tour is in the works again, with myself and a couple of my friends already planning where to road trip to this season.

A few thoughts:

  • Miguel Sano, not surprisingly, grabbed the No. 1 spot. He was recently named the second-best third base prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo Sano batted .292 with 20 homers in 66 games at Elizabethton last season at the age of 18. The Twins like to take it slow with prospects, but he could be a fast riser if he manhandles A-ball pitching this season.
  • Beyond the top five or six, the list takes a drop, which really shows the Twins’ lack of depth in their farm system. No. 7 prospect Liam Hendriks got a taste of the big leagues last year, but most experts project him to be nothing more than a third or fourth starter in the majors.
  • No. 2 prospect Joe Benson also played briefly in the majors last season. With the departures of Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer in free agency, Benson could have taken advantage of an opportunity with a better September last year, but he often looked overmatched at the plate. There’s no questioning that Benson has the tools, but they might need more refining. Remember, he did bypass Triple-A entirely after a strong Double-A showing last season.
  • Former eighth-round pick Brian Dozier lands at No. 10. Along with Benson and Hendriks, he’s another guy that Twins fans could see in the big leagues sooner rather than later. The middle infielder hit .322 at advanced A-ball last year before batting .318 at Double-A New Britain in 78 games. Because the Twins lack depth at second base and shortstop, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Dozier get September at-bats with another strong year in the minors.

At the very least, Wolves are exciting

I did something on my night off Monday that I hadn’t done in what seemed like years: Watch a Minnesota Timberwolves game … front to back.

The Wolves pulled away late to beat the Sacramento Kings on Monday.

I was at work tonight when they picked up another victory, rallying to defeat the Detroit Pistons. I wouldn’t say basketball fans have visions of playoff berths dancing in their heads, but at least the team is fun to watch.

The Target Center crowd – after years of turning its collective back on the team – has returned. And the fans hang on every Ricky Rubio no-look pass. And I continue to marvel at the dominant post presence that Kevin Love has begun. This team has a couple of building blocks and just needs to build upon the foundation.

I’m heading down to the Twin Cities next month for the first Timberwolves game of my life, and I’m really looking forward to it. For whatever reason – is it Rubio alone that’s responsible? – the product on the court seems vastly improved from a year ago.

Potential is forgotten factor in judging Tebow

Many fans love Tim Tebow for who he is. Those who don’t like Tebow focus on what he isn’t.

But as Tebow prepares to lead the Denver Broncos into an AFC playoff showdown with the New England Patriots on Saturday, it seems everyone forgets that – for all of talk about errant throws and Tebowing – this is a former first-round pick who has started just 14 regular-season games.

Even after the Broncos eliminated the Pittsburgh Steelers from the playoffs last week, many continued to debate whether or not Tebow should be Denver’s starting quarterback next season. Any uncertainty about that seems mind-blowing to me.

Tebow has shown a unique skill set so far in his NFL career. And while his 46.5 completion percentage is fingernails on a chalkboard for any offensive coordinator, I don’t have any reason to believe he can’t improve. After all, Denver’s option offense was implemented MIDSEASON.

NFL defenses will have an offseason to prepare for it before next season, but Tebow and Co. will also have months to work out the kinks.

Tebow is far from perfect. But I think he has undoubtedly done enough this season to be handed the job again next year.

My Hall of Fame ballot (if I had a vote)

We’re a couple hours away from the Baseball Hall of Fame vote being announced. Doesn’t it feel like the 2012 season is right around the corner?

I put together a package in Monday’s Forum previewing today’s announcement. You can see it here, though it looks much better in print. Always hard to put something quick-hitting like that on the Internet.

Longtime Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin seems certain to get his Hall call today.

Baseball Think Factory’s website has 145 ballots from blogs postings by various sports writers. Larkin is over 90 percent, with Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines over 50 percent but well short of the 75 percent needed for induction.

In lieu of a real ballot, here’s my imaginary one:

  • Barry Larkin: Heard some amazing stats on Larkin on MLB Network’s “Clubhouse Confidential” that left me thinking I didn’t fully appreciate this guy’s career when it was happening. In any event, a shortstop that hits .295 with a .815 OPS over 19 seasons is a Hall of Famer.
  • Jeff Bagwell: There are always steroid whispers around some of the game’s great hitters over the last 20 years. But without an admission or any evidence (leaked testing, Mitchell Report, etc.), I can’t keep someone out based on hearsay. If after his Hall induction we find out that he took steroids – and yes, I wouldn’t vote for anyone that took steroids – so be it. Sometimes people get away with it. That’s life. Not every criminal is apprehended. There are cheaters in the Hall of Fame right now. But I believe in innocent until proven guilty. And I believe a guy that hit 449 homers, posted a .948 OPS and had more WAR (wins above replacement) than the likes of Pete Rose, Ken Griffey Jr., and Rod Carew is a Hall of Famer.
  • Tim Raines: It looks like Raines could see a 15 or 20 percent jump in his vote total this year, and good for him. He ranks fifth all-time in stolen bases, and among the top five he was the most efficient base stealer. He hit .294 in a 23-year career, and he had a peak from 1981-87 with Montreal where he hit .310 and stole 504 bases (72 per season) and 63 triples.
  • Edgar Martinez: The stats are just too good to ignore for me, even if he was often injured throughout his career and rarely played in the field. Hit .312 with a .418 OBP over 18 major league seasons in Seattle. His 147 OPS+ (basically his OPS in comparison to the era he played and ballpark he called home) is 40th all-time, tied with Jim Thome, Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell. That should give you an idea of the company he keeps on that list. He’s ahead of modern players like Alex Rodriguez and Prince Fielder.
  • Larry Walker: This would be my darkhorse pick. The Coors Field homer-happy reputation has no doubt hurt his candidacy. He hit .313 for his career and slugged .565. Those are facts. From 1994 (when he was not calling Colorado home) to 2002, he hit .339 with a .631 slugging percentage and averaged 28 homers and 15 steals per season. And while I can’t find advanced defensive metrics for the prime of his career, he did win seven Gold Gloves. I know the Denver air helped him, but I just can’t ignore his numbers and Gold Gloves. He was unquestionably a better hitter at home during his career. But maybe he just felt more comfortable at home too. In 1999, he hit .461 at Coors Field. Thin air or not, there was more going on there than just altitude. This story sums up Walker’s story better than I can.

That’s it. Very much on the fence about Fred McGriff, who hit 493 homers but just doesn’t have that peak that you can point to.

And I’m sure many Twins fans are wondering how I feel about Jack Morris. Well, obviously he garners a ton of respect. He was a workhorse, never more so than in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. But his ERA of 3.90 for his career was just a shade under the average ERA of his career (3.91). Now, he was no league-average pitcher, because he was durable and he won. But that ERA fact for me is hard to ignore.

The ballot gets interesting next year. The steroid ethical dilemma is about to take off with the likes of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds appearing.

On the desk for the biggest day in NDSU athletics history

What a weekend, huh? And it’s not even over yet.

While a crew of five Forum employees went down to Frisco, Texas, to cover North Dakota State’s FCS championship appearance, some of us had to stay back. And our nights were no less thrilling and hectic.

With the noon start, I was fortunately able to watch at my house most of Saturday’s 17-6 NDSU victory. I rolled into the office in the middle of the fourth quarter to catch the final minutes and get started on a section that I’m sure will be displayed in the homes of NDSU fans for years to come.

My sports cover

The Bison aren’t unfamiliar with national titles in football, but this was the first of their nine to occur in Division I. In other words, this was historic.

I had the task of putting out the cover, the inside game story page and the photo page, working alongside full-timers Tom Mix and Andrew Gottenborg and part-timers Dayton Schwieger, Glenn Pursley and Don Bitzan.

Our guys in Frisco learned early Saturday that NDSU was planning a rally at the Fargodome on Saturday night for the players if the Bison win. When the game ended, I let sports writer Ryan S. Clark know so that he could head over to the Dome for the 9:30 p.m. arrival of the players. Photographer Michael Vosburg and Forum online editor Rob Beer ended up joining Clark at the rally. Beer shot some amazing video from the event. It’s accompanied here by Clark story, which had my favorite lede of the day.

My pages were very photo-driven, especially with the poster cover technique on the front page. Dozens of outstanding photos poured in from our Frisco photographers David Samson and Carrie Snyder, keeping our guys in Fargo at the edge of our seats as we tried to determine which photos to display big. While the game may have ended at 3:15 p.m., Samson and Snyder plus reporters Kevin Schnepf, Jeff Kolpack and Eric Peterson in Frisco were filing until around 7 p.m. or so. Here’s Peterson’s game story, with links for all of the other columns and stories.

 

Due to the volume of photos and stories coming in, I opted to clear five pages of space in the sports section instead of the planned four for the big game. Without that, the photo page simply would have never happened. And did you see Snyder’s photo on that page of the young lady who delayed her honeymoon so her husband could go to the game? I couldn’t fathom not running that one.

There was plenty of debate within in the newsroom about the cover shot. It wasn’t an easy choice, because there were too many quality photos. When the headline “HERD HEAVEN” was settled upon, it seemed the picture we did use of game MVP Travis Beck just worked much better with it. The sky provided the perfect heavenly backdrop for that page, even though I initially was hoping to avoid using a celebration photo for the page since I had done that for the last couple of poster covers.

From what I’ve read today, the web hits on InForum.com just exploded. There is just so much demand. And we’re not done yet. Make sure to pick up a copy of next Sunday’s Forum for a special section paying tribute to this season of NDSU football.

Ten years of Gardy

Time certainly does fly, doesn’t it?

Ten years ago today, the Minnesota Twins replaced longtime manager Tom Kelly with a former third-base coach who had no previous big league managerial experience. That man was Ron Gardenhire, and 10 years later, he is still at the helm of the Twins.

For much of Gardenhire’s tenure, he has been a well-respected skipper. No doubt his stock has never been lower than it is right now, with the Twins coming off of a 99-loss season. Much of the criticism fired at last year’s team was due to the lack of fundamentals, which often is an indictment of the manager.

But there is no questioning that Gardenhire has enjoyed tremendous success in Minnesota, despite most of his years being spent in the revenue-depleting Metrodome.

The Twins have won six AL Central titles in his decade of work. His career record of 866-755 leads to a .534 winning percentage. He is seventh among active managers in career victories (I think), and no manager has a longer active tenure with their club than Gardenhire does with the Twins.

While it’s been a career marked by regular-season success, it’s also become just as known for playoff disappointment. In his first season, Gardenhire guided the Twins to a first-round series win over Oakland to put Minnesota in the 2002 ALCS against the Angels.

Since then, no Twins team has won a playoff series. And that is despite some pretty high hopes for the 2006 and 2010 Twins squads that entered the playoffs. In 2006, the Twins dropped an ALDS series to what looked like on paper to be an inferior A’s team, then in 2010 the Twins couldn’t end the postseason spell that the Yankees seem to have over them.

In some ways, Gardenhire couldn’t be more different than his predecessor Kelly, in both on-field success and in demeanor.

Kelly was known for being a behind-the-scenes manager. He was tough on young players. Doug Mientkiewicz once said playing for Kelly was like “walking on eggshells.” Kelly’s teams didn’t make the playoffs often over his 15-plus seasons, but the two times they did, the Twins won World Series titles.

Gardenhire, on the other hand, seems much more engaging. He is often called a “player’s manager.” And while Kelly rarely got into confrontations with umpires, Gardenhire doesn’t shy away from it.

They both enjoyed success as managers. But moving forward, Gardenhire may have to channel Kelly’s hard-lined approach to get the Twins back on track.