Gardy shaped careers, lives over 16 seasons

Detroit Tigers

The transaction reads like an offseason footnote: On Nov. 12, 1986, the Mets traded Minor League infielder Ron Gardenhire to the Twins for a player to be named later.

Terry Ryan joined the Twins earlier that year as their scouting director after working in the Mets’ scouting department, where he had gotten to know Gardenhire, a 29-year-old infielder who spent parts of five seasons in the Majors. Gardenhire was the second baseman for Dwight Gooden’s Major League debut in 1984, but he missed out on their championship season in ’86.

“We were looking for a utility guy,” Ryan said. “It didn’t work out as a player, but it sure worked out as a manager.”

Citing health, Tigers manager Gardy retires

Gardenhire played the next year at Triple-A Portland. At season’s end, they had a managerial opening in the Class A Midwest League.

“I think everybody who’s ever been around Gardy, even when he was with the Mets, would say he has a chance to stay in the game,” Ryan recalled. “He’s an easy guy to like. He’s got a real good feel for the game, even back as a player. And he has a great personality, and he has a way about him.”

Fourteen years later, Ryan was the Twins’ general manager. Among the issues he had to handle after the 2001 season, including contraction talk, was a manager to replace the great Tom Kelly. Gardenhire spent a decade on Kelly’s coaching staff, but Ryan did a traditional search, which resulted in no decision.

“Tom and I had talked,” Ryan said. “I was looking for his advice and he said, ‘You’ve got a guy right here who’s pretty well suited for the next step.’ He had been around most of those players for quite a while. We had promoted a lot of players from within.”

The Twins promoted Gardenhire on Jan. 4, 2002, just over a month before Spring Training. Sixteen seasons, 1,200 wins and six division titles later, that scrappy infielder announced his retirement from managing on Saturday.

Gardy’s legacy cemented in Twins history

But beyond the results and accolades, including the American League Manager of the Year Award in 2010, are the careers and lives he helped shape, from the core of the Twins’ division dynasty to the youngsters who made their Major League debuts in Detroit this summer, whom the Tigers believe will be part of their next contender.

“I came up as a 22-year-old. He looked out for me. He treated me like a son,” former Twins first baseman and current broadcaster Justin Morneau told reporters in Minnesota. “He was a guy who always wanted the best for his players. He would go to bat for his players. He was a players’ manager. And he had such a good feel of, once or twice a year if the effort wasn’t good enough, come in and yell and blow up the room and let everybody know that effort is expected and focus is expected.”

From those early years to the end, when he was a 62-year-old managing players less than half his age, Gardenhire related to young players. That made him the right manager for two Midwestern clubs trying to build from within. Gardenhire could relate because he remembered being in their shoes.

Like his longtime division rival and good friend Jim Leyland, Gardenhire was never a star as a player, and he never forgot what it felt like to struggle.

“Young players, veteran players, they’re people,” Leyland said. “And I think the basic thing is we both understand how hard the game is to play.”

Gardenhire’s first Twins team won 94 games and reached the AL Championship Series. Torii Hunter and A.J. Pierzynski, who came up under Kelly, blossomed into All-Stars. David Ortiz had his first of 15 consecutive 20-homer seasons, albeit his only one in Minnesota.

Gardenhire’s Twins won four division titles in a five-year span while transforming their roster. Morneau and Joe Mauer debuted under Gardenhire and became AL MVP Award winners. Johan Santana, a former Rule 5 Draft pick, won two AL Cy Young Awards. Francisco Liriano, acquired from the Giants in the Pierzynski trade, became an All-Star.

Morneau’s AL MVP Award season was particularly noteworthy, because it came despite a first-half slump. Around the low point in early June, Gardenhire benched him for a game.

“Instead of turning me down, he kind of built me up,” Morneau said. “He told me that he benched me first and then told me that ‘we expect a lot out of you.’ Told me, ‘I love you like a son, and we expect you to have a big impact on this ballclub. We also expect a lot more out of you. You need to be a professional. You need to be able to do things.’

“The way he handled that, when I walked into the room, I thought I was getting sent down and I thought I might not come back to the big leagues. And the way he handled it, the way he set the expectations out for me without making me feel like I was a disappointment, had the most impact of any conversation I’ve ever had in my career.”

Tigers pitcher Spencer Turnbull can relate. At his low point last September, recording just five outs in 56 pitches, Gardenhire pulled him from a game in Oakland and spent the next few innings talking with him on the bench while still managing the game.

“‘You’re really good. You’ve just got to believe it,'” Turnbull remembered him saying. “I owe him a lot for helping me get started in my career.”

Turnbull was on his way to a 3-17 record in a 47-114 Tigers season, struggles Gardenhire knew were coming when he took the job. And yet, the team came out of it learning, developing.

“What made him so good for us, and what we were going through with the rebuild the last few years, was just how personable he was,” Daniel Norris said. “He was always so positive. Obviously, he’d be upset when we lost, but I can think of a bunch of times when he’d come in after a loss and give us a 10-second pep talk and that’s all we needed. We don’t need to be sat down and yelled at or told what we did wrong. We also didn’t need to be left alone. It was like he knew exactly what to say at the right times.”

Gardenhire’s last managerial move might well have been fitting. With a 1-0 deficit in the ninth inning Friday against Cleveland, he called on Daz Cameron to pinch-hit against Indians closer Brad Hand. The 23-year-old was 1-for-27 with 11 strikeouts since making his debut nine days earlier.

Cameron fell into an 0-2 count, then crushed a triple to the depths of Comerica Park, putting the tying run on third. The Tigers couldn’t drive him in, striking out twice. One night later, Cameron had two hits, doubling his career total, including the go-ahead single for a 5-2 win.

Gardenhire’s moves didn’t always work, and when they did, his teams didn’t always win. But to the end, he knew how to make players better.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Leyland said. “I think Gardy was a perfect guy for that situation.”

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for since 2002. Read Beck’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

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