Ron Gardenhire called his wife, Carol, after an unexpected exchange Saturday with Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila in his office. He told her that he retired from his managerial career, effective immediately, because of health concerns.
He walked out of Comerica Park that day before first pitch and without a job. His family members were shocked at the timeline of the decision. For a few weeks, they had been expecting a retirement at the end of the 60-game season, but not with eight games remaining.
“He’s said that kind of stuff before, too, so I wasn’t really sure,” Gardenhire’s son, Toby, told the Free Press on Sunday. “You never really know until the end, so (Saturday) was kind of abrupt.”
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On Saturday night, Gardenhire and his family gathered on a video conference call to take shots of Fireball to celebrate the conclusion of a 16-year managerial career. He stuck around in Detroit — keeping his distance from the ballpark — until Monday when he piled into the car with Carol to drive back to their home in Minnesota.
But Gardenhire’s players aren’t ready to believe this is the end.
“He just loves the game so much,” Tigers reliever Daniel Norris said Saturday. “I can see him coming back later. That’s what I think about when I think about Gardy; there’s somebody that loves the game of baseball.”
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Toby had an up-close look at what sparked the end of Gardenhire’s three-year tenure with the Tigers. He is the Triple-A Rochester manager within the Minnesota Twins’ organization, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced him into action as the leader of the alternate training site in St. Paul.
When Gardenhire came to Minneapolis for a five-game series Sept. 4-7, Toby was with the big-league team and rode with him to the ballpark. On Sept. 4, they were driving to Target Field when Gardenhire said, “I think this is going to be it for me. I think this is going to be my last year.”
That was the first time Gardenhire spoke to his son about his retirement plans. The next day, the manager went missing from the Tigers’ dugout in the sixth inning.
“I looked over and all of a sudden he wasn’t in the dugout,” Toby said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, I wonder what happened.’ I ran into the clubhouse, went back and looked at my phone to see if anyone called me. I had no messages. So, then I talked to ‘Hot Rod’, our (clubhouse manager), and he took me over to the Tigers’ clubhouse.”
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Gardenhire had a stomach virus and missed the final two games against the Twins, an organization he managed to 1,068 wins and a spot in the 2002 ALCS. His illness, combined with the COVID-19 health crisis, made it easier for him to walk away. The stress caused his hands to shake.
“He’s been through a lot of health issues,” Toby said. “He had cancer a couple of years ago. It’s a pretty scary deal. He just wants to be healthy. I think that’s where he’s at right now.”
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Health is the top priority right now, Toby said. Gardenhire needs to spend time with his grandchildren, kids and wife. He needs to relax at his home in Fort Myers, Florida. He needs to get back to golfing with Toby, an activity the two were “loving every minute” of during quarantine. .
That’s why Toby doesn’t think his father is going to come out of retirement to manage again.
When Gardenhire was fired in September 2014 after 13 seasons for the Twins, he told his family that he didn’t know if he cared enough to do it anymore.
“I was like, ‘He ain’t ready to be done. He’s gonna want to do this again,’ ” Toby said. “I could just tell by talking to him. It wasn’t the same (as now). I could tell that he still had the fire. He still wanted to do it.
“It feels different this time. A lot different. He seems ready.”
But that doesn’t mean his career in baseball is over, not after 1,200 career wins — 46th most in MLB history. His 2,480 games managed ranks No. 35 in history. In 2010, he won AL Manager of the Year.
After playing five years in the big leagues, Gardenhire became the Twins’ third-base coach in 1991, won a World Series in his first season and held the position for 11 years. He served as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ bench coach in 2017.
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“He’s got too much knowledge,” Toby said. “People are always gonna be asking him to do things. All of his friends, his whole network is at the ballpark, so he’s not just gonna go away. He’s not just gonna be gone. He’ll be around, in one way or another. I can almost guarantee that one.”
Special assistant to the general manager, likely in Minnesota, seems fitting.
Or something like that.
“I do have a feeling that my dad will be back in that kind of role at some point,” Toby said, “where he’ll just be around for people to talk to.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.