‘What am I doing?’: Ex-Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire opens up on health, sudden retirement

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
 
| The Detroit News

The voice — that deep, rich, resonant Ron Gardenhire voice — which was always good enough to do commercial voice-overs or be shared with a radio audience, was clear and strong Tuesday.

“I feel fine,” Gardenhire said, speaking from his daughter’s home in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he and wife Carol are helping his daughter get accustomed to crutches following Tara’s knee surgery.

“Still a few stomach issues. But, yeah, I’ve calmed down. Kind of relaxed. And I do feel better, definitely feel better.”

That’s a step up from Gardenhire’s life 31 days ago.

It was Saturday, Sept. 19, and Gardenhire pulled into the parking deck at Comerica Park. He headed straight for general manager Al Avila’s office.

His blood pressure was raging. His hands were shaking. Things were so bad, so at-risk, Gardenhire and Avila both feared he might be staring at a heart attack with only eight days to go on the Tigers’ 2020 schedule.

The Tigers manager was done, on the spot. Not even Carol had a clue it would happen so suddenly.

“She was shocked,” Gardenhire said. “I had said earlier to her I thought I might retire, but she said, ‘Nah, get into the offseason and see how you’re feeling.’

“I called her and told her I had just retired. Right now.

“She said: ‘You did what? Why?’

“And I just said that I needed to do what I needed to do for myself.”

In fact, the stress, which Gardenhire says was mostly the product of COVID-19 anxieties and protocols, had chewed him up in 2020. He had been dealing with it, thanks to regular monitoring from Tigers trainer Doug Teter, and from Tigers team doctors.

But he wasn’t getting better. It was turning worse, frightfully so, as a pandemic’s punishing ways and a baseball team that was trying to fight its way past knee surgeries and broken wrists and another tough year began to inundate a man who Saturday turns 63.

He had gotten a bad scare early in September, during a Tigers road trip at Minnesota. Stomach troubles knocked him out of two games. Gardenhire believes it was food poisoning. But where stomach bugs began and where stress became part of the mix makes for tough sorting as he looks back.

“There was this stress, the anxiety every day with this COVID stuff, and here I am worrying about all kinds of things in Minnesota,” he recalled. “Really, it was more of the stress over (COVID) protocols. You know, you’re worried just going to the grocery story — wearing a mask in a grocery store.

“And then you’re trying to figure out a baseball team, with all the injuries, and now I have a guy coming in and doing a nasal test on me, and I just said: ‘What am I doing here?’ I’m a cancer (prostate) survivor. I have borderline diabetes.

“What am I doing? So, I talked with the coaches and we were all in the same boat (in agreement). It was finally time.”

Gardenhire was hired three years ago to take on the equivalent of a Chernobyl clean-up. A long Tigers rebuild was heading into the darkest, thickest days of reconstruction. Gardenhire knew it. So did his coaches. So, of course, did his boss, Avila.

There was a three-year deal in place. It would be brutal, most likely, although Gardenhire sidestepped assumptions. He wanted to manage again. And, like any new skipper, he figured breaks might turn his team’s way.

They didn’t, not competitively. The Tigers went 64-98 in 2018, 47-114 a year ago, and then 23-35 in their 58-game, pandemic-pared 2020 schedule.

Even if coronavirus had not become the world’s 2020 scourge, Gardenhire says he likely would have said goodbye this autumn. He had always viewed Detroit as a three-year deal. His coaches knew as much, and Gardenhire was ready after one last hitch to wave off the dugout.

He hadn’t decided, not firmly or finally, until a deep malaise — physical and psychological — became overwhelming.

“As I told Al, coming to the ballpark every day, you’re not feeling good, your hands are shaking, the games are going on, and it’s quiet because there’s no fans, and then you’re throwing in all these protocols,” Gardenhire said.

“When you start counting down the days, it’s not fun. So, when I told him I was finished, he definitely was kind of shocked. And then I went a step further: I said, ‘Al, I want to do it right now.’ I was wound up pretty tight.”

It wasn’t this way throughout his time in Detroit. Not at all. Gardenhire loved being back in 2018, particularly. He hadn’t managed in four years. He was hungry.

Watching him that spring, on Marchant Stadium’s back fields, working during infield drills as he coached and reassured and got such a glow from working with kids was to see a man return to his vocation and to fulfillment.

“It was fun, because I got to watch Victor (Martinez) play his last year,” Gardenhire said. “He was one of those guys you’re lucky to manage, like Cabbie (Miguel Cabrera), and that was exciting.

“It was exciting to get to know Al and his staff, who are great baseball people, and all the people who worked around the ballpark. I made a lot of good friends who are friends for life.”

He appreciates that he was appreciated, for the most part, by Tigers fans. He had gotten insight on Detroit and its baseball ways during those years as Twins manager when his team and Jim Leyland’s played so many times, each hunting division titles and playoffs. He knew Detroit was a Baseball Town, capital letters.

“Just coming into Detroit, and seeing the passion of those fans in the stands, talking with them over the dugout, I always appreciated that,” he said. “You could smile with them and talk with them and then later become part of a great baseball club.

“I’m proud of that.”

He believes, with credence, that the next skipper will be stepping into a sweet job. The kids who began arriving will be joined by more young flesh that will steadily remodel a big-league roster.

He wishes he were around for Riley Greene, and Spencer Torkelson, and a half-dozen others who figure to make this next chapter of Tigers baseball something closer to the Detroit playoff heyday he saw from Minnesota’s dugout.

But he has no qualms, none, about the players — and particularly the sweat — he saw those players, and his coaches, put into three seasons in Detroit.

“The effort was unbelievable,” Gardenhire said. “Talent-wise, we were just trying to get through things, and it was hard, because no one wants to lose. The starting pitching was going through struggles and we were just trying not to kill somebody (overuse) in the bullpen.

“But I feel so good about the way my coaching staff and our players handled everything.”

His emphasis has been on relaxation, heavy relaxation, since he drove home on Sept. 19.

He and Carol left soon for their Florida home and Ron began decompressing with buddies on the golf course.

Baseball has been a no-show. The skipper hadn’t even watched a playoff game until he decided Sunday to catch Game 7 between the Dodgers and Braves. That has been all by design, he said. He is baseballed-out, as it were.

He and Carol soon will head back to Florida, by way of Oklahoma, where they’ll stop and see the “grandbabies” at daughter Tiffany’s home. Ron has plans, too, next month to join his son, Toby, and 10 others for a golf vacation in the Carolinas as part of Toby’s bachelor party ahead of his December wedding.

Otherwise, the script is simple: rest, get healthy, and pray along with the rest of a world that this pandemic passes.

One more thing, Gardenhire assured: He’s not tucking the Tigers into a scrapbook.

“I’m anxious to see what happens with them from here on,” he said, “but I think they’re headed in the right direction. I’ll definitely be involved in watching these guys.

“And rooting for them.”

Lynn Henning, a former Detroit News sportswriter, is a freelance writer.

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