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In Play with Craig Mattick: Kelvin Torve
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In Play with Craig Mattick: Kelvin Torve

Kelvin Torve has had an amazing run in baseball. From growing up in Rapid City, playing American Legion baseball for Post 22 and the legendary Dave Ploof, and playing in the Major Leagues. He played for the Minnesota Twins, the New York Mets, and even playing in Japan and having the great Ichiro Suzuki as a teammate. He's now in his fourth year coaching the Hardhats team at Rapid City's Post 22.

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How did the love for baseball begin for you in Rapid City?

Well, it probably started with both Post 22 and the Rapid City Chiefs. There used to be a collegiate summer league in Rapid City, the Basin League, and there was a ton of big leaguers that went through there. And so I grew up watching them, I was the bad boy for the Chiefs when I was 11 and 12, and then I was the bad boy for Post 22 when I was 13. And when you're in the dugout and you see these guys, how they apply themselves, and how good they are, and how much fun they have both with the game and with each other, it just is for lack of a better term, it infects you. And that's where pretty much I got my love of the game and my desire to just take it as far as I could.

Craig:   How about the family, was there a love of baseball in your family or what people were influencing you to look at baseball?

Well, it was my dad and mom. Our family was kind of symmetrical because as far as my dad's coaching career was concerned, because I had a younger brother and my dad coached me between 8 and 12 and then he coached my brother when he was 10 to 14. Our ages just happened to line up, so our dad was heavily involved in baseball and it was nice because he wasn't overbearing. If he saw a lack of attitude and effort in us, that's when we heard about it, but if we didn't hit a drive and run to win ball game, he wasn't yelling at us or [crosstalk 00:02:47] he wasn't yelling at us, it was strictly attitude and effort. And even as I raised my two kids, that was the two non-negotiables in parenting, was that if had a good attitude, they had a good effort, the results would take care of themselves. So we had a great baseball home life.

What kind of an athlete were you in Rapid City in high school when you weren't playing baseball?

Thankfully, that was back when you could play multiple sports and also thankfully in South Dakota you still can. We lived in North Carolina for 25 years and by the time you're 12 or 14 down there, you'd better pick your sport because you're only playing one. I got a chance to play football and basketball all the way through high school. And so when I got to ORU most of my teammates were year round baseball players. They're from Texas, Oklahoma and California. But when I got to ORU I wasn't even a semester behind them and yet I had the joy of playing football and basketball all the way through high school, so that was quite the blessing.

Kelvin, when you get to college for baseball, certainly you have to have a skill set, but there is something or something that pushes you to become a better baseball player. How did you do that? What were you really good at and you needed to get better at?

Well, the thing that drove me was fear. I'm coming from Rapid City and we're down, like I said, we're down at Oral Roberts and all of my teammates, like I said, we're from Texas, Oklahoma, and California, and I'm from Rapid City, South Dakota and I'm thinking, oh my gosh, how am I ever going to keep up with these guys? And so I just felt a responsibility to represent my town and I felt a responsibility to represent Post 22.

And so that kind of drove me and naturally you've got to have some ability and skill to at least get to the school. But what really drove me the first year was just, I didn't want to let the town down, I didn't want to let Post 22 down and so I worked really hard and it worked out. And it also helped, I had a Post 22 teammate, [inaudible 00:04:53] went down with me at the same time. So we were kind of in the same boat and we both really had good careers there. And so Post 22 and Rapid City prepared us well for baseball at that level.

Why Oral Roberts?

Well, there wasn't much else at that time. After I graduated my senior year in high school, I had nowhere to go. North Carolina, the University of North Carolina was recruiting me during my senior year, and they were pretty serious about it, and I had a nice scholarship offer, and I wanted to go there. My dad and I took a recruiting trip down there in March, and we leave Rapid City, and there's snow on the ground, and there's no flowers out and we get to North Carolina and everything's in bloom, it was 72 degrees and they're playing the University of South Carolina three game set. And I said, I'm coming here.

And the coach offered me a pretty good scholarship, but then he rescinded the offer and so there wasn't anywhere to go. Wichita State flew me down, but they decided to go with the coach's brother as their first baseman. So I was kind of stuck. And it was late June after my senior year in high school that ORU came out of nowhere and just offered me a scholarship. And I jumped on it because there was really nowhere else to go. Previous year, ORU had been to the World Series, College World Series, so I knew they were a top 10 Division 1 program, but it was either that or I just probably have to scramble and find the junior college somewhere.

Well, maybe you didn't have to scramble as much. Maybe you did eventually you get to the Major Leagues with a free agent contract with the Minnesota Twins and it was the year after they won the World Series. How did that relationship begin?

Well, you said you have to win the World Series, I guess my timing is one year off because I got to ORU the year after they went to the World Series and I got to the Twins a year after they went to the World Series. So professional baseball is a meat grinder, it's really difficult. I got drafted by the Giants and made it to AAA with them. And then I got traded to the Orioles, made it to AAA with them. And to be honest, Craig, I didn't know if I was ever going to make it. And if I was a betting man, I would have bet no, because I was 27 years old and had no Big League experience.

But I signed with the Twins and got off to a good start in Portland, which was a AAA team. And Tommy Herr went down, he was a second baseman, but yet the Twins needed a left-handed pinch hitter off the bench. So I got the call up and I was only there a month, but my gosh, it was just fantastic. I had a great time and I got a couple of hits to help them win games, which was gratifying. But it was just a combination of a lot of hard work and just being in the right place at the right time.

Puckett, Hrbek, Puckett, Brunansky, Viola, were you a little shocked, a little odd, deer in the headlight look, when you walked into the Metrodome that very first?

Oh yeah, especially after you're in it for... I was 27. If I'd made it when I was 22 or 23, I'd probably be young and dumb and wouldn't be quite as deer in the headlights look. But my first game was in Oakland and it was just, I was stunned. That's the only way I can phrase it, is stunned. And gradually you warm up. The Twins were great. Puckett, and Puckett, Gagne, and Dan Gladden, and Brian Harper, and Viola, they were fantastic. Jeff Reardon was the closer, they were great. And so they really made the transition a lot easier than it could have been. But that being said, when you work at something as long as I had and never really thought you were going to get a chance and all of a sudden 22:30 Friday night, they say you're going to the big leagues and 10:00 the next morning you're at Oakland Coliseum. It is a little head spinning.

Awesome. Who was your locker next to?

I don't even remember, because we were only there two days and so to be honest, I didn't really pay any attention to that. I was just glad to have one.

You probably slept in your clothes, anyway. You slept in your uniform, didn't you? You never took it off.

Yeah, I did keep it that's for sure.

But then it's the Mets two years later, you made it with the Mets for a bit. What was going on in your life at that time, this is 1990?

It was just baseball, '87, I made it to the Twins, '88, I did not. But after the season in '88, I went to Instructional League in West Palm Beach, Florida, learned to catch for a month and then I went to Venezuela and played winter ball. And so baseball is a year round job, we played during the summer and then as soon as the season ended, I'd take two weeks off and then I'd get in the weight room. And so I played two years with the Twins, didn't make it the second year in '88. And then the Twins were going to move on. They had a couple of prospects they wanted to play. So the Mets, they signed me and again, I was in the right place at the right time with the Mets. And it was much easier with the Mets because I'd been there, I kind of knew what to expect and had a lot better year with the Mets than I did with the Twins, just because I was more comfortable. And getting called up the second and third time it was a lot easier, let me tell you.

Well then, eventually, I mean, you're getting into your thirties, early thirties, when you played in Japan and you had Ichiro as a teammate. He's just a young kid at the time, if I remember?

He was. It was his first two years in professional baseball, he'd gotten drafted. So he was 18 and 19 the two years I played with him. The first year, I don't know, he didn't even have his driver's license because he rode his bike to the games, but you could tell the guy was gifted. And at that time, no players came from Japan to the United States. And I watched this guy play and he was up and down between the big leagues and their AAA team over there both years, but you could tell he was really going to be good. And I kind of said to myself and to our interpreter, and I said, it's a shame that Japanese players don't come to the United States because I think he could play in the big leagues. And I don't necessarily think I'm a great judge of talent, but it turned out I was kind of right because he came over to the United States and had a hall of fame career over here because he was that good.

Why did you decide to play in Japan?

Kelvin Torve:   Well, money for one. They paid pretty close to big league salary over there. I knew in The States, I was basically an insurance policy in AAA, somebody had to get hurt for me to get called up. And both my wife and I are kind of adventuresome, especially my wife. It was an adventure to go over there and play. And so we looked at it as such and we enjoyed our time there. But just an opportunity to do something else. The road was kind of ending in The States and the chance to make a little bit of money at the game because up to that point, you don't make a whole lot playing the Minor Leagues as long as I did, so that was kind of our motivation to go over there.

There had to be a time though, you thought in the back of your mind, you're going to have to be doing something when the baseball career is over. When did being a coach or a manager come to you?

Not very soon after I got done playing because even when I was playing, I always viewed myself as more than just a baseball player. I'd read business books and I read a lot of history and things like that. And I'd never considered being a coach, at least in pro ball because I played one year in A ball, two years in AA and then I got to the AAA and I said, I don't want to go back and coach and start riding the buses in rookie league and A ball again. So I got out and got a job in sales in the packaging business, did that for 17 years. And I'm glad I did.

I viewed myself as more than just a baseball player. And then the circumstances had changed in the job market and then I worked at a classical Christian school for three years as a development director and all along, I'd coached my kids. I coached my son at baseball and coached my daughter in high school basketball and really enjoyed it. And then Post 22 came calling and I said, yeah, I would enjoy moving back to Rapid City. We'd raised our kids, they were out of the house, it was time for another venture. As I mentioned, we're kind of adventuresome couple, my wife and I. And so I said, yeah, let's move back and give this a shot. And I've loved it ever since.

You played for Dave Ploof for Post 22, it was back in the mid to late 70s. What did Dave Ploof mean to you playing for that? Rapid Citians love their baseball and Post 22 by far the best franchise of baseball in South Dakota.

Well, it's something that I can never repay because I played for him for three years and I had good coaches in other sports, even [inaudible 00:14:12] my basketball coach and Doug Cogan and Jim Highness for football. But coach Ploof was just, he's a legend. He was there 47 years and he taught me more about life than baseball. He really didn't teach me a whole heck of a lot in regards to the mechanics of the game, but he taught me everything, about competing about expecting more out of yourself than you think you have to give, about competing against the best that you can find. He just was gifted in the sense that he would make you realize that there's more in you than you think you have.

And he could be a little polarizing figure as well. Not everybody liked the guy. And when I played for him, I respected him and I feared him. He wasn't really a friend. And then only after you leave the program and get older that you realize what an unbelievable blessing he was in your life. And then he becomes a friend and all through the last years of his life, he was a friend. And when we lived in North Carolina, we'd come up here with our family over the 4th of July, and we'd make sure to see coach Ploof, and he got to know my kids, and then he passed away a few years ago and he's still missed. He was the best coach I ever had, regardless of the sport or level from Legion ball all the way through the big leagues, he was the best coach I had.

On a three, two count, did he always give you the green light?

Well, three, two, yeah. I didn't want to strike out. But he just played the game his way and if you didn't sprint off and on the field or throw a helmet, he wasn't afraid to embarrass you and take you out of the game. You can't really embarrass kids now, the culture is different, but he wasn't afraid to embarrass you. If you showed him up with the program and he saw it, he would make sure that you wouldn't do that again.

There was thoughts of you were never going to be the manager, the coach for Post 22, is that right? Is that a story that you've shared with me that at one time in the back of your mind, you were not going to be Post 22's coach?

Right. Mitch Messer was the head coach and he started calling me and Tom Roudebush was involved as well about moving back and coaching. And the year before I moved back, we tried, but it just didn't work out because I was working at the classical school, which I just really enjoyed. But then the circumstances had changed with the school and an opportunity presented itself to come back to Rapid and coach. And I told Mitch and Rudy, I said, I'll come back, the only condition I have is that I would never be the varsity head coach. I said, I don't want the job. I'll be the assistant coach at the lowest level or anywhere in between, but I won't be the head coach because I didn't want it, I didn't think I was qualified.

And then after two years of coaching the lowest level of team, our program had some transition going on and I realized that if I didn't take it our program would be in a bad way. And I started thinking about it and I got my head around it and I said, yeah, I think I can do this. And so I agreed to take the head coaching job and I have absolutely loved every minute of it ever since. The first two years were great and being the head coach is great. We've got some unbelievable assistant coaches, they know a lot more about the mechanics of the game than I do. In fact, I tell people the longer I coach at Post 22, the less I think I know about the game of baseball because they're so good at what they do.

And our players are blessed to have the coaching staff that we do. So I have my role. I'm in charge of the culture and I do help kids with mechanics and things like that, but I let the pitching coach, Ryan Klapperich handle the pitchers and Nick Ewing and Jason Herz, Jason's our director of player development, I let them work with the hitters and the defense. And I just sit back, and marvel and learn. I'm learning right along with our players how you play the game and mechanically, how you go about hitting and throwing and fielding. And every day is a learning experience for me, and I'm just grateful for the opportunity, and I'm having the time of my life.

I think Dave Ploof would be very proud of you, Kelvin. I think he would, don't you think?

Well, thank you. I deeply appreciate that.

It was pretty high level when Ploof is in charge and whoever takes over Post 22, they love their baseball in Rapid City and you still are winning. You're winning ball games. What, 57 games your first year, 47 the year before and then, I mean, a seasoned shortened 37 wins, which you're constantly making the playoffs? You're still winning state championships. What was it like when you won the state championship in your first year?

Well, it was fantastic because it was my first one and I was nervous as the whole state tournament. And the state tournament in Rapid City is an absolute beating. It's five days long and you just exist. It's a crucible and our players, we had some great players. The previous coach, Mitch Messer, he did a fantastic job. He won four state tournaments in six years and following a legend is really hard to do. And regardless of the field of endeavor, whether it's baseball, football, following a legend is virtually impossible and Mitch did a great job. He put a lot of things in place that I'm benefiting from now. And so it wasn't just me, the guys I got the first year were baseball players and we just let them play.

We kind of got out of their way and let them play. And so from then on, we're starting to, I'm trying to put my imprint on the culture of the program a little bit. It's a little bit different than Mitch's and Mitch's was a little bit different than coach Ploof. And so you have to coach within your personality, but yet the tradition of Post 22 is there, that there are some certain non-negotiables that we have at Post 22 that I'm trying to continue the legacy of which coach Ploof and Mitch put into place.

Kelvin, how is Legion baseball right now? Does it need some help or is it as strong as ever in South Dakota?

Well, it depends what state you're in. South Dakota's strong, Minnesota's strong, there's certain states. But unfortunately showcase baseball, travel baseball, has taken over American Legion Baseball in a large measure in a lot of the states. That's paid for play and it's hurting the game because a lot of these showcase teams, they just show up on weekends and play and then you go to another tournament the next weekend, and you've got three or four new teammates. And guys doing that don't learn to play the game, they don't learn to compete, they don't learn to be a teammate. And that's not to say all showcased teams are like that because there are many of them out there that do a good job, that teach kids baseball, that do teach them how to be teammates.

But, at Post 22, Rapid City is on our chest for a reason. It means we represent the town, we represent Post 22, we play to win state championships and regional championships and world series championships. So winning means something to our guys. And when there's no goal at the end of the season insight, as far as tournaments are concerned, then you kind of get a little self-absorbed because you're playing for a scout or you're playing to get into a college. And so we're in a unique situation and I hope our players understand that and appreciate that, that we live on a bus all summer.

We live in a hotel all summer, and you learn to get along with teammates, and be a teammate, and you learn to bond, and hit and run, and you learn to sacrifice your stats for the greater good of the team. And so that's not the case in a lot of the United States now with travel ball. It's just, there's not that demand for competing to win as opposed to, well, I got to play well so I can get into a college or I got to play well so I can impress a professional scout. We do that to Post 22, but that's just ancillary to our goal of having an excellent baseball team and being a good teammate.

And Kelvin, if Rapid City was further south, a lot of these kids I bet would be playing baseball year round, but you don't have much of it right now, do you? You've got a lot of multi-sport athletes playing for you.

Right. And I would say half our guys are, at least half our guys. And we encourage it because playing baseball year round, you get burned out and especially pitchers. The Tommy John surgeries are much more epidemic down south where you play 11 months out of the year. Our pitchers throw four months out of the year and so the colleges that get our pitchers and the professional teams that get our pitchers, our pitchers have low mileage on their arms and so they're going to be a lot better suited for the year. When you get to college, you're playing year round, that's just a given. There are very few two sport guys in college. And so once you get to college, it's a year round thing. But in Rapid City, they play during the summer and then the fall and winter, they play basketball or wrestle and football, and then we tee it up and mid-March.

But the one thing that our guys do is we are very serious about our strength and conditioning program. Scott Benson at Benson sports training is our strength and conditioning guy. And if they're not playing a sport, they're in the gym getting stronger. And even during the winter sports our guys are still lifting. And so it's really good to be able to play two sports and not get burned out having to play one sport 11 months out of the year at age 16. And so it's a blessing for our guys.

Have you had a chance to convince any of your former Major League teammates to come to Rapid City to watch, anyone from the Twins or the Mets, or you got Ichiro coming to Rapid City to catch a game?

Kelvin Torve:   That'd be nice. If we got Ichiro here, we'd definitely have a big promotion. But I keep in touch with Mark Ellis. He lives in Seattle now, but he's interested and active in our program. And so in Jeff Andrews was a teammate of mine in the 1977, the first Post 22 team that went to the World Series, he's been in professional baseball for about 30 years. He's the minor league pitching coordinator for the Texas Rangers. Sam Wolf was in AAA with the Giants. He was here all winter and we talked to him and he worked with our guys. 

We keep in touch with all these guys because I think a lot of them were like me. I never got Rapid City out of my system. I never thought I would move back here, but I never got the town or South Dakota out of my system. And so I think they're kind of the same way. They're proud to be where they came from. And a lot of guys they, where are you from? And they go South Dakota and they, I've never met anybody from South Dakota and here you're playing AAA baseball and nobody's... So I think there's a deep pride in where we come from and that helps our program because guys come back and want to continue to participate at whatever level they can in Post 22 baseball.

Well, when you think about Rapid City and Major League connections, Dave Collins played for Post 22, Mark Ellis, he played for Post 22. You played for Post 22 and of course, Dick Green, manager of the Oakland A's all of them from Rapid City. When I mentioned those four guys, what comes to mind for you, Kelvin?

Well, just the fact that Rapid City is a baseball town and that's a blessing for post 22 because it's funny, there are towns that are that way. St. Louis was baseball town. Sioux Falls I think is a football town. Piers is a wrestling town and football town. And towns take on an identity sports-wise that is interesting. And Rapid City is a baseball town and it starts in the little leagues around town. I mean, the little league coaches and Rapid City do an unbelievable job of inculcating in the young boys in this town a love of the game.

And they coach them well and we get good baseball players because the little leagues in Rapid City do such a great job of approaching them up and encouraging them that this is something that you can do. If I can make it to the big leagues and Mark Ellis and Dave Collins and Jeff Andrews coached in the big leagues. Goodness, we can do it. There's kids in Rapid City that can do it as well. And so it's just nice to be able to be in a town that the sport you're coaching is the biggest sport in town.

Two more for Kelvin here on In Play. I'm Craig Mattick. Kelvin, what are you most proud of when it comes to your baseball career?

Well, one, I made it to the big leagues and I think I did it the right way. I tried to be professional all the way through, I did what my managers asked me to do, I knew what they wanted me to. Even before they ask what I was to do, I was prepared to do it. I honored the empires, I never argued a call, I never got kicked out of a game. And I'm also proud of the fact that I can come back to Rapid City and give back to the town and to the program that has meant so much to me in my life.

And so you look back at my career in baseball or Craig your career in broadcasting, when you say, what are you most proud of? And there's really not one thing, it's a litany of things that you're proud of, but you realize too that it was hard work on your part, but there were so many people along the way that play such an important part in what you are today that it's hard to say what you're most proud of. Like coach Ploof in my life and career. And I know you've got mentors in broadcasting that brought you along. And so I'm sorry, I'm kind of filibustering here. There's just a number of things that you're proud of. And I'm proud, I don't like the term proud. I'm grateful for, I shouldn't say. There's so many things I'm grateful for that have allowed me to get back and coach Post 22 baseball.

By the way, the one home run with the Twins, was it in the Metrodome?

No, it was in California. Off of future hall of famer, Duke Snider. He hung a slider and I had managed to get... I ran into it and hit it out and it's really nice to have a home run, but it's also kind of a joke. Well, Kelvin, how many home runs you hit? One. So it's kind of hard [crosstalk 00:29:51]-

But you only had like 16 at bats or 18, right?

Yeah, I know. People don't realize that. You played the big leagues, you must get some home runs and all that stuff. And I said, well, I change the subject as quick as I can, let me put it that way.

Well, you left it for Hrbek, and Gaetti, and Puckett because they hit 30 a piece.

I let them hit the home runs. I just sat on the bench and congratulated them when they came in.

Lastly, what excites you about baseball today?

It's an everyday thing. It's a grind. You've got to be mentally tough because you play every day and you hurt every day and you still got to get out there and get it done. There's so much negative in baseball. I mean, if you fail 7 out of 10 times at the plate, you'll end up in the hall of fame. And so I think the mental toughness that's required to play the game is what appeals to me. And another thing is the quirkiness of baseball players.

You see baseball players are quirky more so than basketball players or football players, because there's so much downtime in baseball. You get to the ballpark, you take BP, then you got an hour and a half to gain, the between innings, the travel, the rain delays, baseball players are really funny guys. And we've learned to amuse ourselves, so that appeals to me as well as just the, the personality of baseball players, as opposed to other professional athletes is baseball players are funnier.

And so I know that's probably not the answer that you expected, but the one was a serious answer, the grind and that the other one is a sense of humor that we all have that if you don't have a sense of humor in this game, it will kill you because one, if you're not laughing at yourself, everybody else is laughing at you, so you might as well laugh at them. But you also have to laugh at yourself because there's so much negativity in the game in regards to failure that you'd better be able to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too serious or the game will eat you up.

You're loving coaching Post 22, I can tell. I can tell by your voice, Kelvin, you love coaching Post 22.

Kelvin Torve:   I do. Like I said, it's something that when we bring our family back and when we lived in North Carolina and I said, man, it'd be fun to coach here, never dawned on me. It never even crossed my mind I'd have the opportunity to let alone be the head coach and I'm loving it and I'm going to do it as long as I feel that I'm doing a good job. And as long as the board thinks I'm doing a good job, I'm just going to keep doing it because I'm one blessed human to be able to do this for a living

If you like what you're hearing, please give us a five star review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. It helps us gain new listeners. This has been In Play with me, Craig Mattick. This is a production of South Dakota Public Broadcasting.