Gardenhire is the Twins’ steady hand

Ron Gardenhire was born on a couch in Germany. He arrived so suddenly it was too late to drive to the hospital. First Sgt. Clyde Gardenhire, a soldier and not a doctor, didn’t panic. The previous time Mary Jo Gardenhire went into labor, their car skidded off an icy road and into a ditch, where Clyde helped deliver Ron’s older brother.

PhotoManager Ron Gardenhire’s Twins are trying to keep pace with the Tigers in the AL Central.
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Memories of growing up around the military remain vivid to Gardenhire. He watched his father’s men march at Fort Ord in California. His dad called him Ronald, and one day, he said, “Ronald, if something needs to be done, you don’t have to look around. Do it yourself.”

It stuck. So here is Ron Gardenhire today, wearing a Minnesota Twins jersey with his name on the back, and trying to do something by himself: will a baseball team into the postseason. That, of course, is impossible. Certainly, as manager of the Twins, Gardenhire has a greater hand in the team’s success than most. And still, he understands the unlikelihood of this, that the Minnesota Twins, baseball’s little engine that could, get past so many things – the injuries and the roster mismanagement and the underachievement – and make the playoffs for the fifth time in Gardenhire’s eight seasons.

Not that it stops him. The Twins sit two games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers in the American League Central. They start a four-game series today in the Tigers’ Comerica Park. Detroit is an excellent home team, Minnesota a mediocre club on the road. Lose two and the Twins are in trouble. Drop three and they’re done.

Improbable seems Gardenhire’s forte, so in a twisted way all this stress to win brings him a modicum of comfort. He never figured himself a major league player. He scratched out a five-year career nonetheless, despite a complete inability to hit, and he’s now the fourth-longest-tenured manager in the major leagues while running a team with, on average, the 21st-highest payroll.

This baseball gig gives him a good laugh. Gardenhire assumed after all those years spent watching men march he’d join them.

“I figured I’d be in uniform for my whole life,” he said. “I just didn’t figure it was going to be a baseball one.”

The miniature dynasty the Twins have built this decade over the AL Central is confounding in its diverging perceptions inside and outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. At home, they’re ravenous for another World Series after championships in 1987 and 1991. Everyone else marvels that the budget-conscious Twins are playoff regulars. On local message boards, Gardenhire’s choices get dissected to the point where his name should be Ron Cadaverhire; he isn’t disliked so much as second-, third- and fourth-guessed. To the outside, he is Gardy, worker of miracles, the manager neither too tough nor too soft, with enough of a temper to get ejected a healthy amount and not enough to get in big trouble. He is someone who may have an unnatural affinity for playing Nick Punto(notes) but balances it with brushstrokes like starting Matt Tolbert(notes) at third base and watching him heat up on the job.

How the Twins survived this season is enough to check Gardenhire’s carry-on for some magic elixir. (“Cherry juice,” he said, and he’d better since he hawks the stuff back home.) Down went Kevin Slowey(notes), Glen Perkins(notes) and Francisco Liriano(notes), 60 percent of his opening day rotation. Then Joe Crede(notes), the free-agent third baseman. And finally first baseman Justin Morneau(notes), the 2006 AL MVP, who was enjoying his typically strong year with the highest home run rate of his career.

Twins general manager Bill Smith, a respected talent evaluator who has made two whopper trade blunders – Johan Santana(notes), then the best pitcher in baseball, to the Mets for essentially a bag of balls, and Matt Garza(notes) and Jason Bartlett(notes) to the Rays for Delmon Young(notes) – turned buyer in spite of the poor luck. He brought in shortstop Orlando Cabrera(notes), starter Carl Pavano(notes) and relievers Jon Rauch(notes) and Ron Mahay(notes). Even though the Tigers were running away with the Central, Smith believed enough in the organizational chain of command not to let the season fall apart.

The Twins preach a way of thinking, a responsibility, a fashion in which they must embody the club. This sounds corny. It might be. But the Twins know there is a standard, and whether implied or repeated aloud – and more often it’s the latter – they realize playing for Minnesota means throwing strikes, getting dirty, breaking up double plays, emphasizing fielding, preventing big innings and representing the team well off the field, and they do all of those things.

“As a manager, your job is to get the most out of a team and the players,” Gardenhire said. “Put them in positions they can be successful and make it a comfortable atmosphere with some semblance of consistency and an idea we do things a certain way here.”

In other words, a loosened version of his militaristic upbringing. On Sept. 6, the Twins trailed Detroit by seven games. They didn’t panic. On Sept. 12, Minnesota was two games under .500. No sweat. The Twins won 10 of their next 11, buoyed by an offense with AL MVP-to-be Joe Mauer(notes) and the scorching Michael Cuddyer(notes), and suddenly the Detroit series mattered.

PhotoJoe Mauer is batting .371 and is a top candidate for AL MVP.
(Ed Zurga/AP Photo)

“Everybody understands where we’re at,” Mauer said. “I don’t think anything needs to be said. We just want to keep it going.”

It’s something Gardenhire appreciates, the beauty of perpetual motion, of shunning complacency to buy a motor home and spend the offseason cruising around the heartland with his wife, Carol. He plugs in his RV to get electricity and spends his nights in Wal-Mart parking lots. He wonders when he’ll leave baseball and travel all the time. He’s almost 52. The time is closer than most think.

“I love baseball,” Gardenhire said. “But my wife and I have a lot of things we’d like to do. Know how long it’s been since I’ve seen a summer outside a baseball field?

“I’d like to pull up to a stadium and watch a ballgame. Just watch one, you know?”

No time for that. Today Minnesota faces Rick Porcello(notes), the Detroit rookie right-hander who has won more games at age 20 than all but CC Sabathia(notes) and Dwight Gooden over the last three decades. The Twins throw the middling Nick Blackburn(notes). It’s not exactly prime-time-ready pennant-race drama, but it works.

Gardenhire will arrive early at the stadium and scan the scouting report on his desk. Minnesota believes in old-school scouting. He’ll meet with his coaching staff, the lifeblood of his operation, and delegate. He’ll talk with his players and remind them who and what they are. Then he’ll try to relax. And he’ll fail.

“I just want to win a World Series,” Gardenhire said. “It’s different than it was [in ’87 and ’91]. But with our core players, you can have that special year. That’s what you live for. You hope this can be the year.”

He holds out that hope every year, and so far it hasn’t struck. It may. It may not. The Twins need a confluence of good luck to have a chance. That doesn’t deter Gardenhire, nor does the criticism, nor the failures.

Something needs to be done. And he’s glad to be the one trying to do it.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Sep 28, 2009