MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- In the words of the best player he managed in 15-plus seasons with the Minnesota Twins, Tom Kelly was a fundamental freak.
"He was so excited to see a man tag up on the ball or break up a double play," said Kirby Puckett, the Hall of Fame outfielder who played for Kelly for 12 seasons before glaucoma forced his retirement in 1996. "Just playing the game right. He tried to get the best out of every single individual in their own way."
Kelly retired Friday with the longest current tenure of any coach or manager in major pro sports, two World Series titles, 1,140 victories, 1,244 defeats.
"It's just been a fantastic ride for me," Kelly said. "Everybody's been wonderful to me. It's a good time for me to step aside and let somebody else take over."
Bench coach Paul Molitor and third-base coach Ron Gardenhire are possibilities to replace him. Molitor, a Minnesota native, got his 3,000th hit as a member of the Twins in 1996.
"It'll take some time," said general manager Terry Ryan, who along with owner Carl Pohlad and president Jerry Bell tried to talk Kelly out of retiring several times after he told them his decision two weeks ago.
Kelly plans to remain with the organization in some capacity and will help Ryan choose his replacement.
"We'll try to find the best person for the job," Ryan said. "I will certainly consult and discuss with Tom the various things he has a better feel for as a manager. That's going to be invaluable for me."
The 51-year-old Kelly, who led the Twins to World Series titles in 1987 and '91, has long been one of baseball's most respected managers but came under fire after Minnesota's eighth straight losing season in 2000.
After persuading Pohlad to bring him back with a one-year contract, Kelly guided the young Twins to an 85-77 record and a second-place finish in the AL Central -- their best since 1992.
He was extremely tough -- some would say unfairly -- on youngsters, and often sarcastic and sometimes sour with the media. But he was always quick to blame himself for mistakes he made managing and never accepted credit for the team's success.
When the Twins mobbed each other on the pitcher's mound after winning the World Series, he watched from the dugout.
"The game is about the players," Kelly said. "It's not about the manager."
His boss appreciated his loyalty.
"It'd be easy to be a manager for 15 years if he had a big payroll, a large revenue and you can keep the players coming," Ryan said. "He certainly had the opportunity to go elsewhere through the years."
Despite the Twins' success this year, Kelly's body was starting to tell him it was time to quit.
"Whether it's the travel catching up to me or the stress of the job, there were days where I felt somewhat tired," he said. "A little worn out."
Still, he disproved his doubters.
"I heard more than once that some people had thought the game had passed me by," Kelly said. "That really upset me some. I knew I wanted to do it for one more year."
He leaves behind a bright future for the small-market Twins, who struggled throughout the 1990s with one of the lowest payrolls in the game.
"It was a lot of hard work, but I think we've now found the right combination of people," Kelly said. "I believe the ballclub is now set and ready to go in the right direction, as exemplified by what they did this year."
Third baseman Corey Koskie, one of several young stars locked up to long-term contracts, will miss his manager.
"I guess I'm saddened because he's helped me out a great deal in my career," Koskie said. "Hopefully, I can keep moving forward."
Pohlad ordered the small-market Twins' payroll slashed in 1998 as the losses piled up and attempts at funding a new ballpark stalled, and Minnesota wound up using 18 rookies in 1999. The Twins led the AL in losses in two straight seasons, and Kelly seemed to be losing patience with the inexperienced, low-budget club.
But Kelly was invigorated in spring training and said he had grown attached to his young team. The Twins started 18-6 and led the Cleveland Indians by five games at the All-Star break.
A second-half slump dropped the Twins out of the pennant race. Kelly, though, was satisfied with what they accomplished and the way they closed the season by beating the Chicago White Sox for second place.
"Unfortunately the manager couldn't find a way to stop that prolonged bump," Kelly said. "It was really important that we won (the Chicago series). Yes, it was for second. But it was for something."
Something for the fans, too.
Kelly seemed just as satisfied that the Twins drew an average of 9,000 more fans per game than last season as he did with the team's success
"I believe we generated interest again," Kelly said. "The last few years, we probably lost some. That was very rewarding for me."
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