Ron Gardenhire is a true baseball man.
His humor is dry, like when he tipped his cap to general manager Al Avila with an unexpected joke Saturday during his retirement announcement. With a twist, he thanked Avila for the insightful conversations they shared before and after many of the 373 baseball games he managed in two-plus seasons for the Detroit Tigers.
"Standing here right now, one of the first things that comes to mind is how much taller I am than Al," Gardenhire said. "I really didn't realize that."
"I knew he was going to say that," Avila responded, laughing.
Gardenhire, 62, eventually chuckled, but immediately flipped the switch back to a serious tone of voice, as he has done so many times following jokes in his tenure with the Tigers. The journey began Oct. 20, 2017, when he signed a three-year contract to begin the rebuild.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, personal illness and a shortened 60-game season, his journey concluded eight games early with retirement. Regardless of what direction Avila planned to go this offseason, Gardenhire went out on his own terms. Now that he has said his goodbye, the Tigers will look for someone else to finish the job he started.
"I know I have to take care of myself right now and get myself back to where I need to be," Gardenhire said. "I appreciate baseball for everything they've given me and my family. It's been a good career."
He told Avila he was retiring, effective immediately, during an unplanned pregame conversation before Saturday's game. He said he wants to take care of his children, grandchildren and wife. His health, as a cancer survivor, needs to come before the Tigers — a stomach virus earlier in September didn't help, either. Nor did the constant hand tremors from the stress.
Gardenhire's decision is admirable. He spent nearly his entire lifetime in baseball and exited the Comerica Park clubhouse when he decided, not Avila. But the Tigers must move forward without their respected manager who was the face of the organization through two of the most difficult seasons in franchise history.
They must find a new leader, too.
And put what they believe are the finishing touches on the rebuild.
"Knew going in this was going to be a rebuild," Gardenhire said. "There was gonna be some tough times, but through it all, and I think all three years, the teams that we've had here, we didn't have all the talent that other teams had, but we played. They really got after it."
Gardenhire found a way to mesh rookies and veterans — a byproduct of the respect he commands.
He told pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal to savor their MLB debuts. Because, in the end, there's only one first time. Although 21-year-old infielder Isaac Paredes doesn't speak much English, Gardenhire calmed him down through his first big-league slump.
"His leadership and hard work over the last three seasons has put us in a position to get closer to our goal of bringing back winning baseball to Detroit," Avila said. "His hard work and leadership with the young players over the years has really put us back on track in where we need to be and where we need to go."
They'll be playing for a new manager whenever they arrive in Detroit.
A manager like Gardenhire might fit best: wise and respected, yet willing to grow through the struggles with a young team. Someone who isn't afraid to crack an unexpected joke to lighten the mood.
"The potential for this team is even greater (than 2020)," pitcher Matthew Boyd said recently. "That comes from the top. You can only be cultivated from those at the top. I know what Gardy does for us as a team. I know what he instills in us."
With talent on the rise, these soon-to-be big-leaguers won't find success from having a friend as their manager.
They need a leader to display fortitude.
That's what Gardenhire gave the Tigers from the day he put on the Old English "D" in October 2017.
"We're indebted to Gardy for that," Avila said. "Obviously, we wish him well. I know that we'll stay in contact, and he'll be watching the team as we move forward into the future."
Even if this three-year deal was always a stepping stone toward the future, Gardenhire succeeded by going in the right direction. It was often bumpy — see the 114-loss season in 2019. Next season won't be smooth either. Even in 2022, the franchise will likely be working out the kinks.
But by 2023, the Tigers are expected to be contending again.
If the Tigers finally reach the pinnacle of their comeback story, regardless of who is managing, people should remember Gardenhire for his courage and enthusiasm through the dreadful years.
And acknowledge him as the foundation.
"I've enjoyed this time here," Gardenhire said. "My bosses have been fantastic. After the games, always on me, busting my balls. I can say that, right?"
Avila smiled and nodded.
"But they are passionate people here," Gardenhire said. "The staff here is passionate about the Tigers, and I've loved every minute of it."
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Next Detroit Tigers manager must build off what Ron Gardenhire started