Ron Gardenhire has guided the Twins to six playoff appearances since 2002. (AP)
If dogs are the most loyal creatures on the planet, the Minnesota Twins are a close second. Since 1986, three general managers and two managers have steered the Twins. No other baseball team comes close to such little turnover. As modern sports' levels of patience devolved, something very interesting happened: The Twins rebelled against it.
This is, on one hand, a testament to so many of the qualities long held dear both in baseball and outside: stability, familiarity, continuity, fidelity. Those, too, happen to be petri dishes for inefficiency, atrophy and, ultimately, obsolescence. Such is the dichotomy the Twins face this season as a decision on longtime manager Ron Gardenhire's future looms amid a two-year stretch in which the Twins suffered through the second- and fourth-worst seasons in Minnesota.
The likelihood of Gardenhire, whose contract expires at season's end, leaving Minnesota anytime soon is small, particularly considering the abundance of young talent coming through their organization is reminiscent of the renaissance the Gardenhire-led Twins enjoyed from 2002-10.
"I expect Ron to be on this job for a long time," Twins general manager Terry Ryan told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday. "I don't consider it lame duck at all."
At the same time, Ryan is a realist, and a meeting with Gardenhire last September illustrated as much. During the conversation, they discussed their futures, a somewhat uncomfortable topic for both, particularly when Ryan told Gardenhire he would not be offering a contract extension. Doing so after back-to-back 90-loss seasons, including 99 in 2011, would send the wrong message. Gardenhire agreed.
The two are of similar mind on almost everything, equal protons and electrons in the Twins' atom. Ryan had hired Gardenhire a decade earlier to replace Tom Kelly, who had managed the Twins since 1986. Gardenhire validated it with six American League Central championships in nine seasons.
Between Ryan leaving the Twins following the 2007 seasons and much of their homegrown talent departing via free agency, lean years hit. A nine-year run in a market like the Twin Cities with a stadium like the Metrodome was, in retrospect, remarkable, a testament to the superior player-development system Ryan had cultivated. The pipeline dried under his replacement, Bill Smith, who was fired in 2011. Ryan returned and, in typical Twins fashion, re-hired Smith as an assistant.
"Things have changed in the industry," Ryan said. "We're trying to be stable and have continuity, and almost all the people we've had for years are still here. But there does come a point where change is necessary.
"I hope that's not now."
In mid-April, as he relaxed in his office on the road, Gardenhire shared that sentiment, albeit in a far more animated fashion. One of Gardenhire's great qualities is how he relates: the common man with an uncommon sense of people. Never has he been the best strategic manager, something his players and Twins fans have come to accept. Inside the clubhouse is where Gardenhire does his work, and while no metric can measure such value, his ability to manage people is nonpareil. Even as the Twins rebuild and losses pile up, playing for Gardenhire is seen as a privilege.
He sees managing just the same. It's different these days, of course. The thrill of the postseason – the yearning to return so he can improve on a 6-21 playoff record – has yielded to the incremental pleasure of watching players develop. Congratulating rookie Aaron Hicks on his first hit – that is a moment, the sort for which any manager lives. Coaxing Hicks through a 3-for-51 skid to start his major league career, on the other hand, is the main ingredient in an ulcer.
Managing tends not to be a growth industry, which is why Gardenhire's longevity is so impressive. Twelve years with one team – only Mike Scioscia with the Angels has lasted longer at his current job – is more than a function of how the Twins operate. It is how they view the manager – "I truly believe the manager is the most important guy in the organization," Ryan said – and how Gardenhire wove himself into the Twins Way managing in the minor leagues and after 11 seasons as Kelly's third-base coach.
"We're in this together here," Gardenhire said. "The minor leagues feel the effects if we lose, and they also feel the effects if we win. So we try not to separate it. It's not I had a bad year as a manager. It's we had a bad year as an organization. You can't just put it on one person, one part of it. It's us. It's a whole group trying to get it right.
"If we're doing everything we can do, I'm doing my job, and if that means when we don't win they feel like they need to go a different direction, that's their ballclub. I totally understand. I'd have no grudge whatsoever. Because I've been given as good an opportunity here as I could get as a manager."
The Twins' situation couldn't be any different than when he took over. Before Gardenhire's first season, commissioner Bud Selig had threatened to contract the Twins. Today they're in a gorgeous new ballpark, Target Field, and in 2011, they sported an opening day payroll of nearly $113 million – higher than Detroit, St. Louis and even the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And so with new resources and new money come new expectations – the sort that conflict with loyalty and continuity, particularly during such a tepid stretch. The Twins are 9-7 after winning the first of a Tuesday doubleheader against the Miami Marlins. They're not expected to contend. Even a .500 record would shock executives. More likely is a midseason trade of impending free agent Justin Morneau and others. Another year of struggle in 2014 would shock no one.
By then, most of the Twins' top prospects should have arrived. Third baseman Miguel Sano is tearing through Class A pitching and, come the promotions of Wil Myers and Oscar Taveras, will be the best hitting prospect in the minor leagues. Starter Alex Meyer, acquired for Denard Span this offseason, is the sort of power arm the Twins desperately have missed, and with Kyle Gibson and Trevor May coming, too, the paucity of pitching that plagues the Twins now should abate some. Outfielders Oswaldo Arcia could be an impact bat, second baseman Eddie Rosario shows promise, Michael Tonkin should arrive to the bullpen soon. And perhaps the best of all – even better than Sano – is center fielder Byron Buxton, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft last season, who has destroyed the Midwest League as a 19-year-old and looks primed to debut by his 21st birthday.
"It's like the same group we were running up here in '02," Gardenhire said. "Six or seven guys all played together, came up and won. And believe me: I've seen a bunch of good players in our system. And the excitement when those guys keep developing and add to what we've got now is going to be a lot of fun."
The only players under contract beyond next season are catcher Joe Mauer and closer Glen Perkins, both of whom grew up in Minnesota and were drafted by the Twins. On a roster littered with players who have arrived in the last two years, they remember all the victories, the champagne showers, the Twins representing small-market baseball every bit as well as Tampa Bay and Oakland do today.
"All he's done here is win," Mauer said. "The last couple seasons that hasn't been the case, but that's not because he's done a better or worse managing job than when we were winning [division] titles. A manager can do only so much. Players have got to be healthy and produce. Gardy is one of the best in the game. But it's got to fall on somebody if things don't go well. Thing is, what's happened the last couple years has been out of his hands."
For that, Ryan does take the blame. Even if the manager is, in his eyes, the most important person in the organization, as GM he is the shepherd of talent. His position, accordingly, is not envious: judging Gardenhire is really judging himself.
"Ron's going to be as good as the front office," Ryan said. "But we do have to show improvement."
He would not address what exactly constitutes improvement, nor whether an extension for Gardenhire could come midseason. With the Twins, such choices are never, ever made in rash fashion.
Look at Ryan. When Andy MacPhail left for the Chicago Cubs in 1994, Ryan inherited a team that recently had won a pair of World Series. For the next six years, as the core of Brad Radke and Torii Hunter and so many others developed, the Twins went 404-548. The Twins stuck with him anyway. Keeping Gardenhire on would be his way of paying it forward – or at least promoting continuity when its value is in question in so many other places around the sport.
"It's not something I'm too awful worried about," Gardenhire said. "I've been lucky here. And if they want to make a change, you know what? I won't argue a bit with 'em. I'd go about my business and go on my way knowing I had a great opportunity here. I've been lucky. Blessed. I would love to keep it. I'd love to stay here. I do like it."
As he should. The last two years cannot cancel the first nine. Nobody can steal the nerve-pinching drama and trauma of back-to-back Game 163s, the elation of getting to the ALCS in 2002, the misery of all those playoff losses. They keep him coming back – the excitement of what was blended with the possibility of what could've been and still could be.
Very little gets Gardenhire as excited as the postgame handshake after a victory. He walks through the line and congratulates his guys and gets ready for another, because that's what baseball is to him – the little moments, fractured and fragmented and stuck back together to form a complete picture: him wearing a Minnesota Twins uniform, because they fit Ron Gardenhire just as he fits them.
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