Reusse: In pantheon of sports characters, ‘Slick’ was as good as it gets

The Kansas City Royals were in Clearwater, Fla., to play an exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies in March 1987.

Bob Nightengale, the original one of those as a baseball writer, was covering the Royals. I was there to write a piece on Billy Gardner, the former Twins manager now managing the Royals.

The man we called "Slick" had been hired in emergency circumstances, after Royals manager Dick Howser had started treatment for brain cancer (that would prove fatal for Howser at age 51).

There were maybe 300 people in the old Clearwater ballyard. Nightengale and I settled into seats right next to the near corner of the visitors dugout.

"What's Gardner being paid, Bob?" I asked.

Nightengale said, "I haven't checked."

Gardner was standing with a leg up on the steps 10 feet away and I said: "How much are the Royals paying you for this assignment, Slick?"

He smiled, spit just a tad of tobacco juice and, as I recall, the answer was: "Two hundred grand, pal."

For sure, it was substantially more than what he had been making with the Twins, first as the manager starting early in the 1981 season for owner Calvin Griffith, then lasting into the 1985 season after Carl Pohlad bought the team.

He was fired after 62 games in 1985, with Howard Fox — the survivor from the Griffith organization with Pohlad — coming to the Super 8 hotel in Roseville to give him the news.

On hearing the knock on the door, Gardner said: "This hotel doesn't have a restaurant, so I figured it wasn't room service."

In this fairly brief time, Gardner had what I consider a distinction, even if no one else does:

William Frederick "Billy" Gardner — born in New London, Conn., on June 19, 1927, raised in nearby Waterford, died there last Wednesday at 96 — rates as my second all-time favorite baseball personality, standing on the podium between Tony Oliva and Kirby Puckett.

I can offer no greater compliment than this:

Slick Gardner was our baseball "Burnsie," and Jerry Burns had to be amidst us here in Minnesota for decades to attain his "All-Time Great Character" status, not a mere five years as Gardner did.

Later that 1987 day in Clearwater, the Royals brought a very tall rookie righthander named John Davis in to pitch. He threw a couple of pitches that caused a Phillies hitter to flinch and I said to Gardner:

"What do you think of this kid?"

Gardner gave a very positive report on his early looks at the 6-7 Davis and then, thankfully, he went into "Slick" mode and said:

"But what do you think the odds are that I'm going to want to have a tall righthander in my bullpen again named Davis? That would give me too many flashbacks."

That's why I made the drive from Orlando, Slick — to get the latest Ron Davis two-line joke.

Gardner was the Twins second baseman when they played Minnesota's first-ever big-league game on April 11, 1961, in the original Yankee Stadium. He didn't last long that season, giving way to Billy Martin and others, but he was a pal with the Griffith family.

Calvin was looking for a third-base coach in 1981, an opening created when Gene Mauch abruptly resigned in August 1980 and Johnny Goryl moved from third base to the manager's job.

Gardner was hired to coach third. The Twins started 11-25 and Goryl was fired — although it was as much by mutual consent as anything. Gardner replaced him, in a season split by a two-month strike.

That saved us from realizing the '81 Twins were probably Calvin's most feeble team in 24 seasons as owner. They were 41-68-1 overall, but a sterling 24-29 in the second half (and allowed to print playoff tickets that became keepsakes for the several hundred that were purchased).

The Twins moved into the Metrodome in 1982, Calvin gave it about a week to enliven the franchise, and then started trading most of his well-compensated players early in the trip to a 60-102 record.

The day of infamy was April 10: Roy Smalley was traded to the Yankees for minor league shortstop Greg Gagne, pitcher Paul Boris — and Ron Davis, with his sizzling fastball and excellent slider.

It was the start of a not-so-beautiful friendship:

R.D. failed in just enough dramatic situations to drive his manager to drink (which Slick was going to do with his postgame beers anyway).

Those endless losses in 1982 and 1983, with a young, rebuilt team — a time when Gardner was stopped while driving from the airport to his plush quarters at the Super 8, alleged to be just over the legal limit.

"Why have you been drinking, Mr. Gardner?" the law man asked.

"I manage the Twins," was Slick's alleged reply.

He spent a few hours in jail, paid the price and asked publicly for forgiveness.

And then in '84, the young Twins were joined in May by Puckett, and helped by a Big Ten West-like American League West that season, they went to Cleveland in late September for a four-game series still with a chance to win the division.

On Thursday night, before hundreds in the huge ballpark, the Twins led 3-0 going into the bottom of the eighth. Mike Smithson and Davis combined to give up three runs.

In the ninth, lefthanded-hitting Jamie Quirk came up for his first (and last) at-bat for Cleveland. Gardner walked to the mound to tell R.D. not to throw a fastball.

Slick had just reached the dugout, when Davis threw a fastball and Quirk hit a game-winning home run. The next night, with Frankie Viola on the mound, the Twins led 10-0 and wound up losing 11-10.

It was all over but the R.D. jokes.

And there were so many more from our guy Slick:

• When a guy in a runaway truck took out a room at the Super 8, where Gardner and several coaches resided when the Twins were at home, Slick started referring to his lodging place as the Super 7.

• Twin Cities reporters covering 1985 spring training in Orlando were working hard to create lefthanded reliever Tom Klawitter as the much-needed hidden gem to write about.

He became "The Klaw." And when he appeared at Tinker Field and recorded an out, we would look down at the home dugout and around the corner would come Gardner's right hand made into a Baron von Raschke-style "Claw" grip. This also continued for a time at the Metrodome.

• "Slick was a card player by fact and a pool hustler, by reputation," Gardner's third-base coach, Tom Kelly, said. "This was probably more a joke than reality, but he loved telling about a high-stakes poker game back in Connecticut.

"One player was doing poorly and said, 'Billy, please loan me $200.' Billy did it, and soon, some criminals rushed through the door, waved their weapons and demanded everyone back up to a wall and hand over all their money.

"And the guy who had hit up Gardner said, 'Billy, here's the two hundred I owe you.'"

• Gardner was once-married and divorced when he met Barbara Carnaroli, who had been an outstanding athlete (playing high school baseball with the boys team) as well as Miss New London in a beauty pageant. They were married in 1952, and stayed that way for 71 years. Barbara, four children, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren are Billy's survivors.

Barbara's background is required for this brief tale about Gardner and Johnny Podres, his pitching coach with the Twins and a wonderful character unto himself.

Gardner and Podres found themselves as roommates in a hotel for a time. Johnny and I both graduated from the same institution of higher learning — St. Mary's rehab center — in order to deal with a mutual fondness for alcohol.

Post-sobriety, Podres remained a very poor sleeper. So, he would sit on the register on the other side of the room, creating a plume of smoke with his cigarettes and drinking a few non-alcoholic beers.

And the succinct review of this from Gardner was offered to Charley Walters from the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

"How would you like to be married to Miss Connecticut, wake up in the morning and the first thing you see is Pod's blue head?"

Ninety-six and a half, Slick. Dang, what a run.