“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.
The 1993-2000 period was one of the darkest in franchise history, as the team strained under the paltry revenues the Metrodome afforded it and ownership engaged in a brinkmanship war to get a taxpayer-funded ballpark.
Kelly retired from managing after nearly reaching the playoffs in 2001. The fan favorite for his job was St. Paul native and former Twin Paul Molitor, who was ambivalent about the job, perhaps because Major League Baseball was trying to eliminate the flagging Twins franchise, which had spent a decade playing to a mostly empty house.
“We were in limbo,” remembers Dave St. Peter, now team president. “The season was tied up in court. [The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission was trying to enforce a lease by forcing the team to play at the Metrodome.) We had decided on Gardy [as the new manager] and got the green light to announce it.” That afternoon, the Vikings fired head coach Dennis Green, and St. Peter remembers reporters leaving the Metrodome in the middle of Gardenhire’s press conference.
The Twins dodged a bullet with the help of the courts. Gardenhire took the reins and brought the 2002 team to the AL championship series. (Not until his seventh season managing a professional baseball club did he finish out of first place.) The Twins rode that momentum to six division crowns in nine seasons and a showpiece outdoor ballpark.
Until last season, a Ron Gardenhire team had never finished more than two games under .500 or lower than third place. If you accept the sports cliché that certain players and coaches “just know how to win,” it would be hard not to apply it to Gardy.
Ronald Clyde Gardenhire was born to a father in Army service in Butzbach, Germany. His parents eventually returned to Oklahoma, where Gardenhire attended Okmulgee High and went on to become an all-conference shortstop at Paris (Texas) Junior College. Gardenhire would have entered the military had he not gotten scholarships to junior college and the University of Texas, where he was captain of his conference championship team and still holds the record for most runs batted in one game—10.
Eight years in the Mets organization ensued, followed by a concluding chapter with the Twins Portland AAA team in 1987, the year of the Twins first World Series championship.
Gardenhire says he knew as early as 1983 he was destined for the dugout. “I told a teammate that year I’m gonna manage in the big leagues and Rick [Anderson] is gonna be my pitching coach,” he recalls. “I liked teaching, I liked to help people along.”
It was not, then, the multi-million dollar gig that has earned Gardenhire two homes and a big, bad motor home as well. The job entailed long bus rides, rough motels, and shared apartments. “You do not go into coaching for the money,” he notes. “I worked temp jobs in the off-season, I helped frame houses.”
Gardenhire had a sense that he might manage the Twins in his years coaching under Kelly. “The last few years, he would take me in and explain how he’d handle all these different situations,” he says. “Tom would say, ‘You always have to be yourself, don’t change.’ ”
When observers rank Gardenhire’s value, they rarely talk about his game skills. “Gene Mauch was a master strategist; Tom Kelly is the best baseball man I’ve ever been around,” says Star Tribune columnist and ESPN 1500 radio personality Patrick Reusse. “But I don’t think of Gardy as a great in-game manager.”
A Leader of Men
Those attributes pale, though, in the face of one overriding consideration: Gardenhire is one of the game’s premier motivators, which has allowed the Twins to field rosters picked for fourth or fifth place and win divisions.
“Sometimes we may not have the best talent, really,” admits General Manager Terry Ryan, “but the manager can cause the team to perform beyond their abilities. Tom Kelly did that as well.”
His charges concur. “Players overperform for Gardy, they want to win for him,” says Gardenhire protégé, infielder Nick Punto, currently with the Boston Red Sox.
Gardenhire identifies watching his father lead recruits at Fort Ord in California as the beginning of the process of learning leadership. “Since becoming manager I’ve never hit a ball or made an error,” he says. “But all bosses have to get people to perform.
“You control men and you’re asking them to believe in you and accept your leadership,” Gardenhire continues. “Players need guidance; they need someone to tell them what to do.”
Though baseball is a team game, “You can get selfish as a player in pro sports,” says Ryan. “Our manager commands respect. And if players respect you, you’re not going to lose the club.”
It boils down, says Gardenhire’s longtime friend and pitching coach Rick Anderson, to building confidence in the face of experiences that engender anything but.
“The game is built around failure. You fail most of the time,” Anderson says. “That’s our job with the kids, to keep them thinking they will succeed. You can lose a player if you don’t think about their confidence. Gardy has a calming effect on players.”
Managing personalities is Gardenhire’s forte. “You don’t ask people to do what they’re not capable of doing,” explains Kelly, Gardenhire’s predecessor. “You adjust to the team rather than the team adjusting to you. But if you have beliefs about the game, you instill them.”
Member of the press marvel at how Gardenhire uses them to motivate players. “He’s a master manipulator,” notes ESPN 1500’s Phil Mackey, who covers the team in person from spring training to October. “He knows how to use the media to critique a player, and he’ll ream a reporter, to have a player’s back.
Mackey says Gardenhire would repeatedly critique lippy Twins third baseman Danny Valencia via the press last year. “He’ll do that with a player who he thinks has lots of potential that he’s not reaching,” says Mackey. “He’s a very subtle motivator. He blends dictator with being one of the guys. He manages egos really well.”
The Gardenhire Way
More than most sports franchises, the Twins are known for a philosophy of play rooted in attention to detail and personal character, the Twins Way. “They care so much about makeup,” says Pat Reusse, “that they value it more than talent.”
Tom Kelly is credited for instilling the Twins Way, but it came to full flower under Gardenhire. “The Twins Way is an attitude more than anything,” explains Nick Punto. “We played like we thought we were supposed to win. ”
Gardenhire says it began for him that first day—spring training, 1987. “I’d never been through a spring like that,” he recalls. “We worked so hard, we spent so much time on details.” And today it’s his mantra: “The quickest way to get in trouble is letting things go. A guy misses a sign, but things turn out OK, well, that’s still wrong. If you don’t deal with it, it will take the organization right down the tubes eventually.”
As the game becomes ever more built around young, inexpensive, durable players, these challenges become magnified. “An abundance of young players can mean you lose sight of the team aspect of the game,” Gardenhire relates. “An RBI means cash in the next contract, but getting the player over to the next base only gets you a pat on the back. So you get a lot of me, me, me, I.”
Gardenhire says he works hard to try to relate, nonetheless, to the narcissistic desperation that sets in: “The hardest thing these young guys go through is figuring out how to stay [in the majors].” And the biggest difference from AAA to the majors is the advance scouts. “They’re there to find your weakness and then [your opponents] just go after it and after it.”
The manager recalls minor league phenom David McCarty, who had “superstar written all over him, but in the majors he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. The scouts beat him.
“Look, I’ve been through it. The minor leagues, the buses, your body gets beat up. You have to love the game,” Gardenhire says. “The career is short, only the strong survive, and a couple of good seasons can set you up for life.”
Although he’s considered a player’s manager, there are certain types of play and players Gardenhire can’t abide, and the team tends to fix or dispose of them in short order. “Lazy errors I can’t handle. There’s no excuse for not hustling,” he insists.
Though Punto says “it’s tough not to get on with Gardy,” the keen-eyed will recall notable exceptions (Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Pat Neshek, Glen Perkins). They tend to be players (pitchers, mostly) who challenge team authority or display self-regard in its most emphatic forms. “He hates me-first players,” says Phil Mackey, “to a fault.”
“You can’t show up a player or a coach in front of him, especially his coaches,” recalls Nick Punto, who says Gardenhire depends on a veteran core of players to maintain influence in the clubhouse. But when that fails, “Ron can be thin-skinned,” says Pat Reusse. “He has the ability to turn minor irritations into big agitations.”
He points to last season’s contretemps with starting pitcher Kevin Slowey, who resisted team efforts to convert him to a relief pitcher. Reusse regards Slowey as “a smart-ass” rather than a cancer, but Slowey was held in the minors for a long stretch of the season and then traded for very little in the offseason. He’s now on the rival Cleveland Indians and might come back to haunt his former team. “They’ve definitely sold low on some players once they ended up in Gardy’s doghouse,” Mackey says.
Reusse says a key test this season is third baseman Valencia, the prototypical “cocky guy. . . . I sense [Gardy’s] patience is wearing thin. Be interesting to see how he fares” if his game has not tightened up in the off-season.
Tom Kelly believes the best manager is worth merely “four, five, six” wins a season. Fans overestimate a manager’s role as an in-game puppet master. For example, when the manager walks out to the mound fans assume intricate strategy is being discussed, but mostly “it’s to slow it down and lighten it up,” says Rick Anderson. “Take a deep breath, you can do this.”
Those last innings are where a manager earns his money. “Managing a bullpen,” says Nick Punto, “is the toughest thing.”
“Pull a closer with men on base and you will kill their confidence,” adds Gardenhire. “You may win today, but it will come back on you tomorrow.”
“You might lose your player if you quit on them, so you leave a guy out there to fix their mess. It doesn’t always work. But don’t ever mistake that for Gardy not wanting to win. He’s one of the most competitive guys out there. You’ll find out if you bowl or play darts with him.”
Or when an umpire makes a call Gardenhire can’t abide. He’s been ejected from 60 games in his Major League career, and each comes with a fine (they’ve ranged from $300–$2500).
“Jim Pohlad says ‘I hate it when you get thrown out,’ but players need to know you have their back,” says Gardenhire, “There are also times when I’m really upset, and there are times I want to keep my player from being ejected” by sacrificing himself.
Sacrifice defines Gardenhire’s 6-21 playoff record. The Twins have a 1-6 record in playoff series under Gardenhire, who has not won one since 2002. The record includes series where the Twins were thoroughly outclassed, even humiliated. Many of those losses came at the hands of the New York Yankees, a team Gardenhire’s Twins can’t beat whatever the season. Most of the playoff losses can be attributed to a complete collapse of the team’s hitting.
“He’s become a bit defensive about the playoff losses,” notes Star Tribune baseball beat writer La Velle E. Neal III. “It’s not a topic you can get anywhere on.”
As predicted, Gardenhire shrugs, expressing general bafflement: “No clue on the Yankees. I can’t explain it. We play our game; it just hasn’t worked out.”
Although Punto says Gardenhire, like all managers, favors key veterans, it’s respect for tenure, not stature or status. Gardenhire recalls with pride how Tom Kelly “treated Kirby Puckett the same as Jeff Reboulet.”
Though many of Gardy’s players could buy and sell him several times over (and the manager himself earns an estimated couple million a year), he insists the wages of wages be left in the clubhouse. “Most of us in this game didn’t have a lot growing up,” Gardenhire says. His roots are modest, “and I will never change. I tell my players, ‘None of us play with our billfold in our pocket.’ ”
And with that, Gardenhire bids me farewell. Tomorrow he will head to South Dakota to hunt game birds with buddies. The media relations gatekeepers and reticent handlers are nowhere to be seen on this late fall day—just a man in an easy chair, with a house cat and a double-wide hot tub overlooking a lake.
“I’m just a normal Joe,” smiles Gardenhire . . . “who has one of the coolest jobs in the world.”