Seattle — It was early in April in 2019 and the Tigers opened the season on the road. Then-manager Ron Gardenhire had announced that rookie Spencer Turnbull would start the home opener against the Royals and he was contemplating sending him home from New York a day early to rest and prepare for the matinee start.
“I’m not sure we should do that,” Gardenhire said in his office in Yankee Stadium.
“One of my coaches, I won’t mention his name (Steve Liddle), said, ‘He might get arrested for being on the mound at midnight again,’” Gardenhire said. “I said, ‘Good point.’”
Gardenhire then commenced to tell the story of Turnbull at the end of the 2018 season, pitching for Triple-A Toledo, being sent to Durham a day ahead of his start in the International League playoffs.
Turnbull decided he’d stroll over to the ballpark and take in the Durham Bulls game, have some food and maybe get a feel for the environment. Here’s an excerpt from The Detroit News’ account of that night from April 3, 2019.
After the game, (Turnbull) walked around the outside of the empty stadium, stepped over a short wall and walked out onto the field to get a feel for the mound he’d be pitching on the next day.
“I was just listening to some praise music, praying, getting my mind right, doing my visualization and stuff on the mound,” Turnbull said. “I’d never been in that stadium before and I was bored. Felt like a good idea at the time.
“I didn’t realize it was a felony.”
He was detained first by stadium security and then questioned by the police, but in the end, everyone had a good laugh, no charges were filed and Gardenhire knew he had a supremely talented and quirky red-headed hurler on his hands.
“You’ve got to love him,” Gardenhire said that day. “He’s definitely out there. But he’s got great stuff and I have no fear about starting him on Opening Day. None.”
Gardenhire, retired and now living in Fort Myers, Florida, saw the alert on his phone late last night and went right to his iPad.
“First thing I did, I read the news and saw they had a no-hitter and I texted him right away,” Gardenhire said in a phone conversation with The News. “Of course I knew he wouldn’t answer (laughing).”
He doesn’t look at it this way, but Turnbull’s electrifying no-hitter against the Mariners Tuesday night was the final stamp on what Gardenhire had been trying to tell people since that September night in Cleveland in 2018 when Turnbull stormed out of the bullpen like, well, an angry bull, and powered through a scoreless inning of relief in his big-league debut.
“He probably has the best stuff of anybody in the organization,” Gardenhire said.
Turnbull was not supposed to break with the big-league club in 2019. But Gardenhire and then-pitching coach Rick Anderson pounded the table for him, told general manager Al Avila and whoever else needed to hear it that Turnbull belonged in the rotation.
“I’m just so happy for that kid,” Gardenhire said Wednesday. “Just very talented. Oh gosh, the way the ball jumped and moved. Hitters were uncomfortable. That’s what you look for in a good pitcher. If hitters are uncomfortable as they were with him, you got a chance to do something special.
“If you can control the strike zone a little bit.”
Gardenhire and Anderson pushed and pulled and prodded Turnbull through a tumultuous 17-loss season in 2019. They bickered. They tweaked his delivery. They got on him for being late to meetings and to bullpen sessions. They tried to work with and around his eccentricities. They tried soft love, tough love, you name it.
But they never gave up on him. Never pulled him from the rotation. Never stopped believing in him.
“Andy and I both,” Gardenhire said. “It was hard because he’d be misfiring and he kept getting hurt and you’re kind of saying, ‘Is this guy ever going to figure out how to take care of himself?’ Andy was on him constantly about taking care of himself and working harder and, well, having a clue, basically.”
Gardenhire let out that deep growling laugh of his.
“Maybe he found it,” he said.
Gardenhire didn’t watch the game last night, but he spent his morning going over the highlights and reading the reports.
“He was at 117 pitches,” Gardenhire said. “I don’t know. Do I ever go there? But I was really happy. I thought that was really cool and a good lift for the team, the whole package. But personally, Andy and I, we always thought he had great stuff.
“Andy was always worried about the mental part of it because it just got in his way so much.”
Turnbull took on that issue in the winter before the 2020 season, making a series of lifestyle alterations — physically and spiritually. He dived deeper into his faith. He changed his diet. He studied and altered his biomechanics, his nutrition habits and his sleep patterns. He went through a program, a series of mental health exercises, to help him cope with his insecurities and anxiety.
“I know who I am so much more now,” Turnbull said. “And getting to do this with a deeper understanding of who I am, there’s just so much more meaning to it. I don’t know how to explain it. But I’m definitely more ‘me’ now than I’ve ever been — the best version I’ve ever been up to this point.”
You can see why an old-school baseball grinder like Gardenhire might look askance at things like biomechanics and mental health purification.
“Old Bull, man, he’s out there,” Gardenhire often said.
But Gardenhire fully understood the gift that Turnbull had and he understood, on some level, that he had to let Turnbull be himself, even if he couldn’t relate to his methods.
It’s humorous now to look back on it. Gardenhire was always shaking his head, puzzled by Turnbull’s quirks, his pre-start antics in the dugout, walking the length of the dugout, wrapping and flapping his arms and doing all kinds of stretches.
“The biggest thing, when our inning ends I start walking downstairs to go to the bathroom or go to my office or whatever, and he’d come flying out,” Gardenhire said. “I about got killed three times.”
Turnbull always went down the tunnel between innings to stay loose, doing dry reps with a towel. Then, when the Tigers’ half of the inning was over, he would sprint up the steps and out to the mound.
“The big thing for me was not getting run over by the dude in between innings,” Gardenhire said, laughing. “I would ultimately forget about it, you know, and start going down and here he comes flying up the steps.
“It got to the point where I’d hear his towel whipping and popping and I’d start backing people up. ‘Hold on, he’s coming boys.’”
Never has a nickname been more fitting than Red Bull is for Turnbull.
“Yeah, he’s like how you feel when you drink Red Bull,” Gardenhire said.
Don’t let the zingers fool you. Gardenhire was and remains extremely fond of Turnbull and he felt a grandfatherly gratification in seeing him mature, come of age and realize the vast potential that Gardenhire saw in him from the start.
“Maybe I will hear back from him, and maybe not,” Gardenhire said. “But I don’t really care, just because I am so damn happy for him. Because this is really, really cool.”