It’s a sunny, breezy, 52-degree March 2011 morning at the Twins complex in Fort Myers, Florida. Players are running wind sprints. Former manager Tom Kelly is leading drills on field 6. Twins legends Tony Oliva and Paul Molitor are kibitzing with veterans, and waiting to impart their wisdom to up-and-coming players.
The reigning Major League Baseball Manager of the Year saunters out of the locker room into the dank tunnel that threads under Hammond Stadium’s seating bowl. “We need music out here,” he says. A machine that issues fly balls is turned on and pointed in the direction of several players. The manager tosses as many one-liners as fly balls.
“Oh, my bad,” he says, after overthrowing one player. “Take you out to dinner.” The banter is constant.
“Give him an ovation, folks.”
“I got you, Plouffy.”
“Is that Hughesy?”
“No chance, no way, can a catcher get that.”
“Nice swing, Matty Tolbert.”
“Now that’s how I used to hit.”
Later, the pitchers arrive for fielding practice. It could well be a little-league park for the level of instruction offered. “That’s it, pull the ball to your chest, good throw,” Gardenhire says. “Stay outta that base path.” Or perhaps a field in the Dominican. “Un momento, mira, mira, el doce [second base], el trece [third base].” Or maybe not. “Fernando, que plasma?”
Practice is brief and the manager walks off the field, inquiring as to the health of the family of a Japanese TV reporter and talks snowmobiles with expectant fans.
It’s just another breezy day of spring training as the American League Central Champion Twins prepare to defend their crown, and their manager, Ron Gardenhire, prepares to defend his. The assembled players would go on to dominate Grapefruit League competition, tying for most wins on the spring circuit. Hopes were high.
Reality proved something else entirely.
The 2011 Twins finished with a 63-99 record, underperforming even the most emphatic skeptics. Wracked by both injuries and abysmal play, the team’s local hero, St. Paul’s Joe Mauer, would be booed at his midseason emergence from the disabled list, his decade-long $23 million-a-year contract hanging like a noose around the team’s neck. Gardenhire was often seen in the dugout averting his eyes as the miscues mounted.
“Did we turn stupid?” asks longtime pitching coach Rick Anderson. “We were working so hard and it just got worse and worse.”
Built for the Dugout
Nine months later, in the depths of the off-season, Gardenhire is sitting in the living room of his modest lakefront home in the northeast metro, sporting his off-season uniform of a sweatshirt, jeans, and athletic shoes. A massive flat-screen TV soldiers on silently on a nearby wall, within view of the oft-referenced double-wide hot tub, draped in one of the winter’s rare snowfalls. There is little if any baseball bric-a-brac on display.
“Sure there was tension in the clubhouse,” Gardenhire recalls. “And there was no way to manage it. I got tired of holding meetings. Little cliques of players—it was the first year we’d had that. The veterans were frustrated.”
“We had meetings with the Pohlads,” he continues. “I was worried about my job. People told me it wasn’t on me, but why not? It was on me to figure it out. . . . I told my wife we have two years left on a contract, but we may not be managing.”
“I’d have fired me,” says the former Manager of the Year.