FORT MYERS, Fla. -- His detractors felt it was time for a change, but Tom Kelly wasn't ready to quit.
Sometime last season -- probably somewhere between another missed sign by one of his inexperienced hitters and an all-too-familiar first-pitch ball by one of his young hurlers -- Kelly saw something he liked. Something that convinced him that returning to manage the Minnesota Twins for at least another season could reap some legitimate rewards.
"I have come very attached to these players," Kelly said. "I told (owner Carl Pohlad), one more year with this bunch and we will see some good, positive things out of them."
It seemed as though eight straight losing seasons and a push from some of the team's higher-ups for a new face in the dugout might end Kelly's time with the Twins. But he persuaded Pohlad to grant him another year to oversee the rebuilding project, which officially began in 1999 when the Twins sliced their payroll and played 18 rookies but essentially started much earlier than that.
So Kelly and his coaches were given 2001 contracts. And it seems to have energized the entire organization.
"There's a better feeling in this camp," general manager Terry Ryan said. "We're at a point where we think we've got the people in place to become better.
"Tom's an excellent manager, and there isn't anybody that you could have more confidence in to run the operation. We're in good hands here."
Even Kelly, 50, whose personality was never exactly buoyant, appears in great spirits entering his 15th season as Minnesota's manager.
Most of the roster spots are set, so he can spend more time encouraging than evaluating. His comments about young players have implied more pleasure and patience with their progress than ever, and his dry humor has been in full effect.
Early in spring training, catcher A.J. Pierzynski smacked a batting practice pitch deep and urged the wind to blow the ball over the fence. Kelly countered flatly, "It's going to have to blow real hard, son."
Another time Jay Canizaro, not one of the team's more nimble infielders, made an impressive stop of a sharp ground ball four steps to his right. Kelly barked, "Hey, who's wearing Canizaro's uniform?"
One might wonder who's wearing Kelly's uniform. His players notice a difference.
"Yeah, it looks like he's having a lot more fun," Brad Radke said. "Which is good. Looks like it mellowed him out a bit, too."
"I see a different TK," Eddie Guardado said.
"Maybe he's taking the game from a different perspective," Matt Lawton said. "He's definitely been through a lot the last couple years, and hopefully we'll play well for him this year and make it a lot easier on him."
Kelly's father died last year, and the inconsistencies that plagued his inexperienced team might have exhausted any patience he had left. So it wasn't just a question of whether the Twins wanted him back but also whether he wanted to come back.
"It's a personal challenge," he said. "Do you want to accept it, or do you want to go somewhere where (the payroll is) $80 million and you stay out of the way? I am in it for the competition, and trying to make the organization better again. We made it better one time, two times. I would like to try and do that one more time. Whether we can do that, I think we can."
Critics say Kelly's short fuse has damaged the psyche of many a young player, but his passion for teaching has never been questioned. He's often seen throwing extra batting practice several hours before a game -- coaching, observing and sweating.
"You hear things about Tom not being patient with players, and you just go out and watch him teach," Ryan said.
Kelly certainly won't concede that he's enjoying this season more than any other.
"I have fun pretty much every day," said Kelly, the longest-tenured coach or manager in pro sports. "If I didn't have fun, I wouldn't be putting the uniform on."
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