MINNEAPOLIS – On the subject of managerial philosophy, Ozzie Guillen is something of an agnostic. He believes, with his requisite fervor, that managers account for diddly-squat of a team's success, which is interesting, because he gets paid more than $1 million to manage the Chicago White Sox.
Anyway, Guillen's vehemence seems unbreakable until he starts talking about Ron Gardenhire. Guillen is quite fond of Gardenhire, presumably because his team, the Minnesota Twins, gives the White Sox fits. Like on Wednesday night, when the Twins scored three runs without hitting a ball hard, then watched their pitching shut down the White Sox in a 3-2 victory.
This is where Guillen's confusion starts to reverberate. He looks at his lineup. He looks at Minnesota's. He looks at his pitching staff. He looks at Minnesota's. He asks himself how, exactly, the Twins are now within a half-game of Chicago in the American League Central and primed to move into first place Thursday night at the Metrodome with a series sweep. He curses. Then he tries to answer, and his best guess is Gardenhire.
There is a general feeling that Gardenhire is a very good manager, the same reputation heaped on Joe Torre and Tony La Russa, and this is in spite of his insistence on giving Nick Punto 400 at-bats a year.
"Why? Because he's winning every year and nobody gives him any attention," Guillen said. "They say, 'Oh, Santana's not here, another guy's not here, they're going to be in last place.' And there you go."
Guillen, of course, is spot on. The Twins lost Johan Santana, Torii Hunter and Carlos Silva from a team that went 79-83, and somehow they're one win from stealing back first place before ending their season against Kansas City.
All the while, Gardenhire toils in his dugout, his face wizened by stress, his hair whitened by decisions. Guillen says Gardenhire looks like a grandfather, or a guy who's about to have a heart attack. Gardenhire does not protest.
"I smile every once in a while," he said.
Gardenhire actually does wield a canny sense of humor to accompany whatever deft touch comes to his managerial choices. But when the game gets going, his mind moves with such rapidity that his face loses all expression, paralyzed into a poker stare. And by now, his seventh season managing the Twins, he understands the repercussions that accompany, say, his choice of a lineup, or, even better, relief pitchers.
"If they don't get 'em out, I suck," Gardenhire said. "I haven't figured that one out yet: Why I suck so bad when they don't get 'em out. But I take it. I wear it. Because that's my job: to try it. That's OK. I can handle sucking."
This incarnation of the Twins is doing its best to keep Gardenhire from doing too much of that. Most of September was a disaster until the White Sox came to town. Now, two games have erased the feelings of a bad month, and Chicago has witnessed all of the qualities on which the Twins have built themselves.
There is the speed, shown by Carlos Gomez zooming down the line for Minnesota's 64th bunt hit this season, almost twice as many as the next-best team. And the defense, personified by Gomez grinding his legs and thrusting all 6-foot-4 of himself in the air to catch a ninth-inning line drive. And the young starting pitching, with rookie Nick Blackburn escaping all sorts of trouble to give up two runs in five innings before yielding to a lockdown relief performance. And the hustle, as Joe Mauer legged out two possible double-play balls that instead turned into RBIs.
"They blooped us to death," White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said.
His words came tinged with more annoyance than respect. Pierzynski grew up a Twin. He recognizes the sort of nuisance they are. The Twins hit .310 with runners in scoring position, nearly 25 points better than the next-best team, and even though statisticians swear that clutch hitting generally comes down to luck, Gardenhire believes his team knows how to succeed in those situations, and that it's indeed a learned skill.
Which falls in line more with his overall philosophy: teach, reinforce and stand back. Before the first game of the series, Gardenhire called a meeting. He wanted to emphasize just how dire the first game of the series was. The Twins won 9-3.
Guillen, meanwhile, prefers the laissez-faire route, which isn't necessarily better or worse. Remember, for all of Gardenhire's genius, Guillen is the one who wears a World Series ring, and sometimes that gets forgotten amid his bluster.
"Some people take that wrong," Gardenhire said. "If you watch him over there, to me, he's like a little kid back in sandlot baseball. We all should have a part of that in us. And I find myself sometimes wishing I could laugh a lot more and enjoy it. It's fun to look over in the dugout and see him laughing and giggling."
Granted, Guillen neither laughed nor giggled Wednesday. He looked rather haggard as well, six months of a season exacting its typical toll. Last year, when the White Sox joined the Twins under .500, Guillen said he wanted to get suspended toward the end of the season so he could go home to Miami and relax on his boat. He talks about getting fired all the time and how it wouldn't faze him, not one bit.
Yet every day he shows up and parades around his clubhouse like another one of the players, a trail of F-bombs following him like an exhaust stream behind a jet engine. Even if he doesn't realize it, this is how Guillen manages.
Being a manager isn't signals and pitching changes and lineups as much as uniting a group with the force of personality and leadership. Torre was a genius at handling the pervasive egos in New York. La Russa thrives in convincing his players that there is something or someone slighting them. Gardenhire is a master of fundamentals.
And Guillen? Well, he calls Mark Buehrle, the losing pitcher, a "(bleeping) redneck" 20 minutes after the most damaging loss of the season.
It's worked before, so the White Sox go along with it. They goof around in batting practice, with Orlando Cabrera wearing a cartoonishly large glove and Octavio Dotel wearing a blue baby bonnet while stretching. They claim there's no panic, even though they've got a pinky grip on the division. They sing, as catcher Toby Hall did to a pack, including Guillen, walking past him after the game.
"Don't stop … believing," Hall crooned, conjuring memories of 2005, when the White Sox won the World Series and drowned themselves in that eponymous Journey power ballad.
The song's message was appropriate then, and it is now, too, especially for Guillen. He ought to start believing in the power of the manager. All he has to do is look across the field.