Ron Gardenhire leaves the Detroit Tigers with the lowest winning percentage of any manager in team history. But we shouldn’t judge him for that.
Sometimes managers get hired to oversee a team that’s ready for a playoff push. And sometimes managers are hired to instill particular habits in young players and build a culture.
In that way, Gardenhire did exactly what he was hired to do. And he should be celebrated for his effort.
Gardenhire announced his retirement on Saturday just hours before the Tigers took the field against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park.
He will not return. Instead, bench coach Lloyd McClendon will take his place for the final eight games on the schedule.
That Gardenhire stayed through most of this truncated 60-game season — despite his unease managing during a pandemic — says plenty about his dedication to his role as a teacher for this young team.
It also says he had an inkling that all the work he’d put in the first two years, all the losing he endured, was about to pay off.
It did. For a while. When the Tigers put together a couple of surprising (to us) winning streaks and hung around the wildcard race for most of the summer.
That he gave this area a reason to watch or listen to the games may be as meaningful an accomplishment as he has had in his long and successful career. Few things in sports are as gratifying as guiding a team from the bottom.
Yes, the Tigers have a way to go. But Gardenhire leaves this organization in a much better place than he found it. That is indisputable.
That is also why it was so tough for Gardenhire to step down with eight games to go. He had real relationships with his players.
You could see it in the way they played for him.
“We didn’t have the all the talent, but we played and really got after it,” Gardenhire said. “(We) put together a good atmosphere … we had a great clubhouse.”
That isn’t easy to do when a team loses as it did during Gardenhire’s first two seasons — 212 games in all. This is especially true when you’ve had success somewhere else.
Gardenhire arrived in Detroit as the winningest manager in Minnesota Twins history. But, again, he didn’t get hired to win. He got hired to build a foundation that could one day win.
He was on his way to fulfilling his mission. Then COVID-19 hit, and the season stopped before it started, then started a few months later. And when he took the field for opening day, everything had changed.
He wasn’t shy about the stress of navigating a baseball season under such difficult circumstances. Nor was he shy about letting us know how he was holding up.
He is a cancer survivor. He is also a grandfather. And during the break in the spring, he got to spend the kind of time with his family he never got during a normal season.
That feeling stayed with him. He missed his family.
Then he got sick earlier this month in Minnesota. He called it food poisoning. The stomach aches never truly went away.
On top of that, he would shake, especially in his hands. Imagine how unsettling that was for him. At some point he decided he would retire at the end of the season.
As he talked about this with Tigers general manager Al Avila on Saturday in Gardenhire’s office — while his team was taking batting practice on the field — he realized he could no longer wait even eight more games.
He hadn’t told his coaches. He hadn’t even told his family.
“I told Al I would step down,” said Gardenhire. “It was tough.”
Not just telling his boss, but later telling his players. It was also tough walking away from a game that has given him an unimaginably fulfilling life.
He is still only 63. He could see the potential in what he and the Tigers were building. Still, those shaky hands. And that aching gut. And the worry of COVID-19. And those kids and grandkids.
Gardenhire decided the stress was no longer worth it.
“I have to step back and take care of myself,” he said, “try to get healthy and get back to the norm.”
Even so, he didn’t want to feel like he was running out. And to be clear, he’s not. He’s doing what so many of us would do in similar circumstances. He’s taking care of himself and those he loves.
And that’s a blessing.
Besides, he had nothing to prove. He may not have won a World Series, but he won six division titles in Minnesota. He won guiding the kind of team the Tigers hope to be some day, built on homegrown talent and savvy trades and signings.
His teams there played similarly to how the Tigers played the last few seasons, particularly this one: with relentlessness. That’s not an accident.
Though he was quick to downplay his part in the character of his clubhouse and of the way his players performed. This shouldn’t be surprising, either, as Gardenhire has always been one to credit those around him.
Well, it’s time to give the man in the center his due and wish him luck as he heads into post-baseball life, to a lake to fish and to all that time with his family.
He will get better. The shakes (hopefully) will go away. And when they do, and he’s back in his winter home in Ft. Myers, Florida, he intends to jump on his motorcycle and ride north to Lakeland to check on his old team.
Imagine that. The wind in his face.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.