Detroit – Spencer Turnbull was about to begin his pre-start preparations Saturday when a team meeting was hastily called to announce that manager Ron Gardenhire, citing health issues, was retiring. Effective immediately.
“A complete shock,” said Turnbull, who pitched six strong innings in the Tigers’ 5-2 win over the Indians. “I had no idea. A wave of emotion, to say the least.”
Lloyd McClendon was on the field walking back toward the Tigers dugout, it was about 4 p.m. and batting practice had just ended. He was intercepted by general manager Al Avila and told he would be managing the team for the rest of the season.
“It’s been an emotional season in a lot of different respects,” he said. “None more emotional than today. It was really tough for Gardy to talk to the coaches and talk to the players, but he made it through.
“The players are resilient. They’re tough and they bounce back fast. They were ready to play.”
Daniel Norris, who would end up getting three critical outs in the seventh inning, said, “We were all thinking about it. We wanted to win it for Gardy. He’s somebody you look forward to seeing every day when you go to the field and now he’s not going to be there.
“We are all understanding. It’s just such a weird year. But I’m happy for him. I’m happy he was able to look himself in the mirror and say this is what I have to do.”
Just a couple of hours after saying goodbye to Gardenhire in what was described as a tearful clubhouse meeting, the Tigers erupted for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to overrun the Indians, snap a three-game skid and give McClendon his 500th managerial win.
“This is something Gardy had been contemplating but I didn’t think it was going to happen this soon,” McClendon said. “The important thing we all have to realize, and the thing we tried to convey to Gardy, what’s more important is his health and his family.
“It’s time for him to go home and take care of his family and his health.”
Gardenhire would have been pleased with the perseverance and late fight the Tigers showed. Stymied for seven innings, they sent nine men to the plate in the eighth.
Harold Castro, who drove in the first run with a two-out double in the first inning, got it started with a walk against reliever Phil Maton. With one out, Niko Goodrum singled to left. Eric Haase, the former Indian who earlier got his first base hit as a Tiger, followed with a sharp single to center to tie the game.
Rookie Daz Cameron followed with a single to right field, scoring Goodrum. That ended Maton’s night, but Cam Hill didn’t fare any better. He walked pinch-hitter Miguel Cabrera (who was a late scratch with a non-COVID illness) and, with the bases loaded, Victor Reyes.
The fourth run scored on a sacrifice fly by Willi Castro.
Turnbull, whose enigmatic performances have had Gardenhire scratching his head for two years, joked afterward about thinking he might’ve been what put him over the edge.
“We all feel the stress of this but I had no idea how intense it was for him,” Turnbull said. “He hid it well. I know I stressed him out a lot but I didn’t think it was that bad. Like, he’s going to retire on the night I’m pitching. I know he has a tough time when I’m on the mound sometimes, but jeez.
“All joking aside, though, I’m just glad I had him as long as I did. I think everyone feels that way. Family comes first.”
Turnbull, who struck out seven with no walks, thanked Gardenhire for having faith in him to put him in the rotation coming out of spring training last year and staying with him through all his ups and downs.
“He just had a patience for everything,” Turnbull said. “He’s been around the game for a long time and I think he just read people really well. He understood what rookies go through, what our mindset is and what we need to develop. He was one of a kind.
“And his positivity. Even when we really struggled, he just never let us get too down on ourselves. He kept rallying us and kept us coming back the next day and giving it the best we had. He kept us having fun.”
Gardenhire, in his talk to the team, said he hoped he wasn’t being perceived as a quitter.
“He didn’t need to say that and he repeated it a few times,” Norris said. “He said, ‘I hope and pray you don’t think I’m walking out on you.’ I promise you we did not think that…I doubt that even crossed anyone’s mind. That’s just a testament to who he is as a person.”
Gardenhire used to call him Chuck Norris and often made fun of his hell-bent aggressiveness on the mound.
“We’re going to miss him,” Norris said. “He’s one of my favorite humans that I’ve ever been around. This is definitely bitter-sweet. It’s obviously what is best for him and I commend him for doing this, for thinking about himself and his family, while all the while trying to lead us to victory every day.”
At the start of the season, athletes across baseball were showing their support in various ways and on various platforms for the Black Lives Matter movement, speaking out against racial and social injustice. And Gardenhire, a 62-year-old, old-school baseball lifer, was out front in full support of whatever statement his players wanted to make, in whatever fashion.
That went a long way with this team.
“As athletes, we’re supposed to just play the game and everybody puts us in a box that that’s all we are,” Goodrum said. “And not a human being. To have our manager understand that we are people before we are athletes, it helps a lot.
“He was in our corner. He’s always had our back and always had our best interests. That’s a players manager.”
Norris said it right — the whole night was bittersweet.
“I know things were weighing on Gardy heavy,” McClendon said. “This has been a very emotional season for all of us, in a lot of different ways — with the pandemic and all the other things that have been going on in this country. It’s been really tough.
“This 60-game schedule seems like, in a lot of ways, like a 175-game schedule. I know it was tough on him, but I didn’t think it was going to happen this quick.”
Norris said, “The most important thing is that he’s OK, that he continues to stay healthy for the rest of his life.”