October 3, 2004


Okie from Okmulgee: The roots of Ron Gardenhire (Brad Zellar, 9/29/04, City Pages)

It seems almost like ancient history now, but when Gardenhire was named to replace the recently retired Tom Kelly as Twins manager following the 2001 season, the organization was coming off its first winning season in nine years and was holding its breath as Major League baseball decided how to address the contraction issue. Gardenhire wasn't exactly an unknown commodity--he'd been a coach with the big league club since 1991--but he wasn't a particularly high-profile candidate, either. Paul Molitor, the early speculative favorite, dropped out of the running, and other names--most notably Yankee coach Willie Randolph--were bandied about before the Minnesota front office settled on Gardenhire, a guy who had managed teams to first-place finishes in all three of his seasons in the club's minor league system.

Initially, at least, it seemed like Gardenhire was facing some seriously long odds. He was inheriting a potentially doomed team that had enjoyed a modestly successful season the previous year, and was replacing a guy who had managed the franchise to its only world championships, and who had become in his over 15 years at the helm a fixture in the organization. Early in Gardenhire's first season there was private grumbling among some members of the press and more public grumbling in all the usual fan forums that Gardenhire was in over his head.

I started getting regular e-mails from zealous fans, taking strident issue with particulars of Gardy's style, most specifically his propensity for making out rather unorthodox lineup cards (i.e., insisting to bat Jacque Jones, he of the .332 career on-base percentage, in the leadoff position), his use of the bullpen, and his perceived over-reliance on stock game strategies that seemed to have a negligible payoff, like the sacrifice bunt. And there was some truth to some of those criticisms; or, rather, I tended to share some of them. The Twins nonetheless found a way to win in 2002, and at the time I wrote some modest tribute to Gardenhire, basically extending props for doing things his way. Nothing I've ever written has generated more hostile e-mail; you'd think I had just gone out of my way to offer faint praise to the manager of a team that had lost 100 games.

In 2003 the carping somehow managed to get even louder, spurned in large part by the Twins' first-half fold that left them in a huge hole entering the All-Star break. And, again, I was doing some of that carping myself. Why the hell wasn't Johan Santana in the starting rotation? And what was it going to take for Bobby Kielty to earn a place in the outfield? The Twins' core players weren't making any progress. Yadda yadda yadda. Again, the Twins, and Gardenhire, found a way to win, and again there were plenty of people who continued to insist that it was despite Gardenhire rather than because of him.

This is the season, however, where I've lost all patience for the small army of Gardenhire critics. The team suffered devastating losses in the off-season (Guardado, Hawkins, Kenny Rogers, Eric Milton, A.J. Pierzynski, et al.) and continued to take hits right out of the gate when Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, and Shannon Stewart went down with injuries. The guy who was being counted on to replace Hawkins was sent back to Triple-A at one point, and Kyle Lohse, who had double-digit victories in each of the last two seasons and looked ready to become a solid number-two (if not a number-one) starter for years to come, stumbled badly and just kept stumbling. Yet the team--and, again, Gardenhire--found a way to patch things together, integrate the new faces, and just keep winning.

Much of the rancor directed toward Gardenhire probably stems from those loyal to the man he replaced. Kelly was as inscrutable as he was widely admired, and Gardy is as extroverted as T.K. was introverted. Kelly had a famous passive-aggressive streak and was for the most part openly contemptuous of the media and all interlopers in the inner sanctum that was his clubhouse. Gardy gregariously interacts with the fans around the dugout before and after games and maintains an easy, even when combative, banter with the media. He's one of the few people I've ever been around who can be genuinely charming when he's mad as hell, and even more charming when he's having a good day. One of the most gracious guys in all of baseball, he's willing to own up to his fuckups and reasonably defend his position when he feels he's right.

Yet for all the apparent dissimilarities between the two men, Kelly and Gardenhire share an essential philosophy about the game and how it was meant to be played, and Gardenhire has always been quick to credit Kelly's influence on his own managerial style.

"I was very lucky to come up as a coach with this team when T.K. was here," Gardenhire says. "Obviously you need to have good players and a good organization if you're going to have any chance, but Tom taught me so much about baseball, about what was expected at this level and how the game should be played. He was all about respecting the game and paying attention to the simple things like running hard to first base, catching the ball, and playing good defense. He really set the tone for this organization, and those are all things that under my watch we're always trying to maintain."

Bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek has the longest tenure of anyone on the Twins staff, and in his 24 years with the club he's worked for a handful of managers. "T.K.'s a dry, East Coast guy, and Ron has that small-town Oklahoma hillbilly humor, but as managers they're both plain vanilla and solid, straight-shooting guys," Stelmaszek says. "The job is as much about managing personalities as it is about managing the game, and they both understand their customers. That's the best way I can put it. They like to stay out of the way and let the players do their thing. This is a game based on failure, but it's not a matter of life and death, so you have to be able to laugh at yourself sometimes. You know, why come to work if you can't have some yuks?"

In a nutshell, Kelly's simple approach can be boiled down to a few basic tenets: do your work, play hard, and come to the ballpark and have fun. While Gardenhire has appropriated that same approach, he's also managed to escape T.K.'s long shadow and put a distinctly personal stamp on his team. Much of that stems from his personality, and the extent to which he's been able to convey to his players that he's a true believer in those tenets, and places equal emphasis on all of them.

Gardenhire met Steve Liddle, his current bench coach, in 1987, when they were both winding down their playing career with the Twins Triple-A club in Portland, Oregon. Gardenhire had recently been traded over from the Mets organization, and Liddle was a former Angels farmhand. "After we both retired we were coaching in the instructional league together," Liddle said. "Some nights we'd be sitting around going back and forth, talking baseball, and if a stranger came in off the street they'd think we were arguing, because we'd be practically at each other's throats. When you're kicking around at that level you're not making much money, so baseball was pretty much what consumed us. Gardy was a guy who was already figuring stuff out then, and he's pretty much the same guy today. You always hear people say that stability starts at the top, but so does instability. You'll never hear panic in Gardy's voice. His mission to all of us has always been that no matter what kind of setbacks we might have here, we have to find a way to make it work. He shows absolute confidence in his players and coaches. Ron's also a great communicator; there isn't any guessing game with him. The players always know where he stands or how he feels, and that really allows the guys to just relax and play to the best of their abilities."

If you talk to anyone who's ever known Gardenhire, from friends and family in Okmulgee to his present players and coaching staff, the same characterizations and contradictions pop up time and again: On the one hand, they'll say, he's an easygoing, fun-loving guy with a rare gift for gab. On the other, he's an intensely motivated, straight-talking character who hates to lose, can't abide failure, and will, in any competitive venture, somehow find a way to kick your [butt].

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2004 7:02 AM
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