MINNEAPOLIS -- Tom Kelly did not blink. As he looked out at the 1987 world championship banner on the right-center field plastic wall, he said this year's team is better than the one that shocked the world four years ago.
Kelly's Twins, who went into last night's game with the New York Yankees leading the AL West by 7 1/2 games over the Chicago White Sox, arguably have been the best team in baseball this year. But it would seem strange that Kelly would rate the '91 version over the '87 club that beat the St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-game Series.
"The pitching is better significantly," Kelly said. "The names are different but the pitching is better. The defense is about the same and we had more power and a tad more speed in '87. Also, the bench is a little better now. But the pitching is better."
In 1987, Kelly got through the regular season and then the playoffs and World Series with what was a two-man staff of Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola. The Twins manager worked Les Straker into the equation, but it was Blyleven and Viola who handled the brunt of the work.
This season, Kelly has Scott Erickson, Jack Morris and Kevin Tapani. The Minnesota skipper laughed and said, "Those are three names mentioned for the Cy Young-type thing. When you have that, the manager can't help but look kind of smart."
Even without the pitching, Kelly looks smart. In a quiet, though strict way, he commands respect throughout the clubhouse. If he raises his voice, a player jumps. He gets on the field and throws batting practice and is constantly prodding his players. One Yankee said, "He's a decent bench manager, but the work he does before the game, working on the players' minds, makes the game situations easier for him because he never gets into many situations where he's got to make those killer calls."
Kelly insists this all goes back to the material he's been given to work with by GM Andy MacPhail. The manager simply said, "Morris, Tapani, Erickson, [Rick] Aguilera, [Steve] Bedrosian and the ability to catch the ball when we have to is why we're winning.
"The pitchers have just done a real good job for us. The players have a good feeling when they come to the ballpark when they see those three pitchers are going for us. They realize they'll have a better shot to win a ballgame, and that's very important."
The Twins' organization is somewhat of an enigma to the rest of the teams in small markets that complain they can't compete with the big-money organizations. Minnesota, which has one of the smaller TV markets, has put together what may be one of the best staffs in the game and paid market prices for its two marquee players, Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek.
With MacPhail's sometimes frugal maneuvering, the Twins seemingly have beaten out the three-time defending AL champion Athletics, the team with the highest payroll in the game.
Even when money has come into play for the Twins, MacPhail has done the right thing. When Viola's contract became a burden, the GM dumped the southpaw on the Mets in return for, among others, Tapani and Aguilera.
It's because of such moves that Kelly insists he's not totally surprised with his team's lofty position despite the preseason doomsayers.
"Unless you're in a complete rebuilding program, you have to be confident," Kelly said. "We're not in a rebuilding program, so you have to win. We still have a way to go and I am confident, but a manager can never feel comfortable."