The move from the Metrodome to Target Field changed a lot of things about the Twins, but not this: Sunday mornings are still the most entertaining times for manager Ron Gardenhire.
Unlike every other day, when Gardenhire holds his pregame media session in the dugout to accommodate local television crews, Gardenhire does his Sunday deal in his office. No cameras, just a handful of beat writers and columnists.
Years of media and fan criticism have left a weary Gardenhire more defensive and less unscripted that he used to be. But Sundays usually find Gardenhire in a good mood, trading one-liners with writers he likes and tackling offbeat subjects from minor-league hockey in Oklahoma (his home state) to the cost of restoring a vintage Mustang.
It was on a Sunday morning last September when Gardenhire revealed a bit of himself that seemed surprising, unless you understand the inherent insecurity of managing a baseball team.
He’s won six titles and lost a tiebreaker in 9 seasons
In nine seasons as Twins manager, Gardenhire has won six division titles and lost a tiebreaker for a seventh. The Twins are expected to finalize a contract extension for Gardenhire any day now, perhaps to coincide with Wednesday’s announcement of the American League Manager of the Year Award, which Gardenhire finally may win after finishing second a record five times and third once. (Voting was conducted before postseason, although Ron Washington of Texas could be the top vote-getter anyway.)
Barring a health issue or a fistfight with general manager Bill Smith, Gardenhire will challenge his former boss, Tom Kelly, as the longest-serving manager in club history. Kelly retired in 2001 after 15-plus seasons.
Gardenhire has worked on two-year contracts since succeeding Kelly, and midway through each term the Twins generally extend Gardenhire two more years. Gardenhire is at that point now. Yet he acts as if he manages the Pirates, presuming nothing, fearing the worst.
“I bought a house two years ago in Florida, a little house near the ballpark, and I’ve been going there since 1991,” Gardenhire said, meaning the Twins’ spring home in Fort Myers. “I don’t want to jinx myself. When I finally moved my family up here [to Minnesota], I was really nervous.”
He’s lucky he works for one of the least impulsive organizations in baseball. The Twins rewarded Kelly for two world championships by sticking with him through eight losing seasons, which never would have happened anywhere else. That allowed Kelly to walk away with dignity after an 85-victory resurgence in 2001.
“I’m very happy about that,” Gardenhire said. “Other teams make moves if they don’t win the division.”
When the Twins and the White Sox met at U.S. Cellular Field in September, Gardenhire said, Chicago writers asked him if he still enjoyed managed the Twins. Gardenhire overlooked the obvious reason for the questions. Ozzie Guillen was on shaky ground. Lou Piniella had retired. And since Gardenhire has done more with less talent than almost any manager in baseball, how would he like managing a team with a bigger payroll? MinnPost even asked Gardenhire about managing the Mets, who hadn’t yet fired Jerry Manuel.
At the mention of the Mets, a team he used to play for, Gardenhire made a face and emphatically waved his arms as if signaling a missed field goal. “No way,” he said. “I’m a Minnesota Twin.”
Not a good fit for New York or other tough-media markets
In truth, Gardenhire would be a poor fit in New York or anyplace with tough media. Gardenhire can’t handle criticism, no matter how mild, even stupid stuff that doesn’t matter. It’s one thing to defend your players when a columnist tears them a new one. It’s another to quibble over a minor mistake in a blog post on a website with modest traffic, as Gardenhire did one day with Fox Sports North’s Phil Miller, or to bristle over second-guessing by radio callers and assorted morons who couldn’t spell Oliva if you spotted them all five letters.
And because Gardenhire is so easily riled, questions about the truly meaty stuff — like the Twins’ inability to beat the Yankees — send him over the edge.
That doesn’t make Gardenhire a bad manager; old-schoolers Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland and Guillen struggle with new and traditional media, too. But you wonder how Gardenhire’s instant boil plays in his clubhouse. Already, Gardenhire manages a roster of players with no limit to the minutiae they’ll complain about.
Before Game 1 of the Division Series, several players walking through the dugout before batting practice griped because the clubhouse staff didn’t set out their favorite brand of gum.
The next day, third base coach Scott Ullger and others noted that TV crews who previously set up their live shots near the Twins dugout had changed sides, which they interpreted as favoritism toward the Yankees, the Game 1 winners. Maybe that’s true, but given the Twins’ hideous postseason record, can you blame them? And more importantly, who cares? It certainly didn’t inspire the Twins to play better.
The topper came after their 5-2 loss in Game 2, which put the Twins one game away from being swept again. I was the last person in the clubhouse interviewing Denard Span, who finished off an answer about the task facing the Twins with this: “We’re all going to be ready to go. Now it’s time to buckle down, get on our knees tonight and ask God for some mercy.”
Granted, Span is a deeply religious man who points to the sky after every hit and quoted Scripture a few moments earlier. But asking God for mercy in the middle of a playoff series? Yikes. That’s an ore boat full of not good. Why bother boarding the plane for New York?
Even if Gardenhire wins the award on Wednesday, he and Smith need to rinse the whiny, defeatist attitude out of their clubhouse. A little better pitching and more range defensively would help, too.
They won’t be easy fixes. Their farm system is barren. And with Joe Mauer due to make $23 million this season, they lack the payroll flexibility they’d like even with 10 potential free agents. The Twins won’t say publicly what their payroll will be. But their executives are telling downtown merchants it could reach $125 million, based on licensing and merchandise projections pushing Twins revenues among the top five in baseball. (The club ranked 24th in 2009 revenue at $162 million, according to Forbes Magazine; the Cubs were fifth at $246 million.) We’ll find out soon enough if they’re right.
It might be that Gardenhire was more irritated this year because he felt pressure to deliver with the deepest roster he’s even had. Plus, he said, small issues he never had to deal with before landed in his office, all related to the new stadium, taking up his time and a lot of his patience. He rarely looked like he was having any fun.
Once in a while, the practical joke-loving Gardenhire reappeared. Most of the season, Gardenhire kept a $5 bill pinned to the bulletin board behind his desk after winning a bet with the town curmudgeon, St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Tom Powers.
According to Gardenhire, Powers came in one day and mentioned he had arranged to interview Mauer in five minutes. Gardenhire said it wouldn’t happen. Powers, trusting Mauer’s word, bet him five bucks it would.
Powers forgot who he was dealing with. Gardenhire found Mauer in lunchroom and told him to make himself scarce for 10 minutes, making Powers a loser by default.
“I can’t lose a bet in my own clubhouse,” Gardenhire said.