Detroit Tigers introduce manager Ron Gardenhire. Robin Buckson / Detroit News
Detroit – You know it wasn’t a coincidence that the first office new Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire visited on Friday was the analytics department.
“I just went through the analytics department and I told every one of those guys I love them because they’re going to help me,” said the 59-year-old Gardenhire, who signed a three-year contract to be the club’s 38th manager.
Gardenhire gets it. He’s viewed as an old-school manager, and he went out of his way during his introductory press conference to show that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks.
“I don’t mind being old-school,” he said. “Because we all learned to play baseball old-school. But we also know there are a lot of new ways out there. If you stop learning, you’re probably screwed. I don’t want to be screwed, so I’m not going to stop learning.”
Gardenhire, who turns 60 next week, has coached and managed with the Twins in the Central Division from 1991 to 2014. His teams tormented the Tigers through an eight-year stretch, 2002-10, winning six Central Division titles. The Tigers finished second to the Twins in three of those seasons, including 2009 when they lost the division title in a Game 163 tiebreaker.
“This is very special to me,” Gardenhire said. “The Central Division: I’ve been here. I’ve battled here against this team for a long time and I always respected it.”
He and former Tigers manager Jim Leyland forged a tight bond over those years and Leyland has long campaigned for Gardenhire to manage in Detroit.
“Tampering was always one of his favorite things to do,” Gardenhire joked. “He told me, ‘When I leave, I want you to manage here.’ He did that a lot and I love him for it.”
Gardenhire posted a 1,068-1,039 record in 13 seasons as manager with the Twins, making him one of 10 managers in Major League history to win 1,000 games with one franchise. He spent 11 seasons before that on Tom Kelly’s staff, helping to facilitate the Twins’ rebuilding process. It was in those 11 seasons he gained a reputation for developing young players like Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Torii Hunter.
The similarities between the early days in Minnesota and his new task aren’t lost on him.
“It was constant,” he said. “We were a small-market team and it was constant development, teaching, trying to rebuild and get back to where you want to be. As a manager, it was constant change. We lost a lot of players in free agency.
“All the things we are talking about here, I’ve seen. I’ve been through.”
And that’s what has him energized.
“That’s the greatest part of it – being able to teach,” he said. “Whether you are starting over or just adding on, that’s the game. It’s constant change; everybody changes. It’s a challenge, and if you don’t like a challenge, you probably shouldn’t be in baseball because there’s a lot of them.”
Tigers general manager Al Avila started with a list of 47 candidates to replace Brad Ausmus, who was not retained after four seasons. He pared that list to 12 and interviewed 10. Gardenhire, who had previously met with the Red Sox, was his last interview.
“Right then and there we felt we had our man,” Avila said.
Al Kaline and Alan Trammell, along with Avila and his staff, were in on the interview and afterward, Gardenhire was the unanimous choice.
“He is the most qualified guy out there,” Avila said. “How can you deny that?”
Even with Gardenhire’s belated acceptance and embracing of analytics.
“It’s the perfect storm,” Avila said. “You get the old-school leadership plus the new-school analytics and a great man. He’s got that fire that he had in his heyday with the Twins. I got what I was looking for – strong leadership, a motivator, a teacher, a disciplinarian and a communicator.
“The analytics part, we can add that in. He learned a great deal last year and he’s ever-learning. You have to be open-minded and continue to learn, and he has.”
The Tigers have spent over $2 million beefing up its analytics department the past year.
“Believe me,” Avila said, “Gardy is going to use the information.”
Gardenhire got a crash course in sabermetrics last season serving as manager Torey Lovullo’s bench coach in Arizona.
“I’m still an outsider looking in on this stuff, but it’s fascinating,” he said.
He was bitten by the data bug.
“I got involved with it and I saw it working first-hand,” Gardenhire said. “I saw the information. I can see how much is out there. I don’t know if it’s new knowledge but it is sure put in a lot of different ways.
“It makes a lot of sense and it’s a lot of fun. Hell, if I had this before I might not have gotten fired.”
Gardenhire has been given a clean bill of health after he dealt with prostate cancer last offseason. He wasn’t able to join the Diamondbacks until May. It was a life-changer.
“I knew I still had that interest (in managing) and that fire inside of me,” he said. “That passion for baseball never leaves and I never doubted I could do a job. But it was hard. That’s a big word. Cancer. It’s a big word and I had to take a step back.
“I lost a lot of weight. Sitting in that manager’s chair, I got up to 275 pounds. I am down to 235, 232 now. I had to take care of myself. I feel great. I feel re-energized.”
The Tigers are expected to flirt with 100 losses next season; that’s how steep this rebuilding process is. If Gardenhire is daunted by that in the least, he didn’t show it.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “The stuff we talked about, I’ve been there, done that and I think that’s what they were looking for. There aren’t going to be many surprises for me.”
Still, he said he’s gotten a lot of calls from friends saying he’s crazy to take this on.
“They said, ‘What are you doing? You want to get your brains beat out,’” he said with a chuckle. “No I don’t want to lose. Who’s to say we have to lose next year? Who’s to say? Baseball is a great game and a lot of things can happen.
“I’m going in thinking we’re going to kick some butt.”