McCosky: Ron Gardenhire's passion, love of the game connected him to players of all ages

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – It was February 2018. Ron Gardenhire’s first spring training as manager of the Tigers.

“In our first meeting, Gardy said, ‘I don’t know any of you guys, so I’m just going to call you ‘buddy’ when you are running around until I can get a look at the back of your uniform,’” Jordan Zimmermann said.

That was all it took. Zimmermann went to equipment manager Jim Schmakel and asked him to prepare three jerseys with the nameplate “Buddy” on the back.

On the first day of full-squad workouts, Zimmermann, Alex Wilson and Michael Fulmer were out there, Nos. 27, 30 and 32, respectively, all with Buddy stitched where their last names should’ve been.

Ron Gardenhire

“He was laughing,” Zimmermann said. “A few cuss words in there; but it was all in good fun.”

That’s as good an epitaph for Gardenhire’s three years with the Tigers – it was all in good fun.

It was a lot of teaching, it was a lot of patience, a lot of work and a lot of losing – as he knew there would be with a full-on rebuild – but through it all, he made it fun for players and front-office folks and even for the media to come to the ballpark every day.

“His positivity, even when we really struggled, he just never let us get too down on ourselves,” Spencer Turnbull said. “He kept rallying us and helping us to come back the next day ready to give the best we had.

“He kept us having fun. He just made sure we were having fun and enjoying ourselves, knowing there was a bigger picture out there.”

Turnbull was one of Gardenhire’s many comic foils.

“The Bull, I don’t know how else to put it, he’s a little crazy,” Gardenhire said, often. “He’s a little out there. But that’s OK. I like that.”

Turnbull joked Saturday night that he was glad Gardenhire retired before the game because he didn’t want his start to be the thing that pushed him over the edge.

“I loved our banter in the dugout,” Turnbull said. “He’d say something smart to me and I’d say something smart back to him and he’d just shake his head and laugh, or he’d give me a look like I was an idiot. But I know he loved me, too.”

Alex Wilson might have been his favorite target, though. Gardenhire, a Texas Longhorn alum, carried on a good-natured but unrelenting attack on the quality of education (poor), the entry standards (low) and the type of human (sub) produced by Texas A&M, from which Wilson was a proud alum.

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“I love the guy, he’s one of my favorite players,” Gardenhire said this spring. “But there is this little thing between us. He’s an Aggie and I’m a Longhorn. So if you want me to say real positive things about him, maybe he could get some people out.”

When Gardenhire found out Wilson had gone back to A&M and finished his degree during the offseason, he quipped, “If he got it from A&M, it really doesn’t mean anything. That degree won’t help anybody other than an Aggie.”

Wilson, though, gave as good as he got. During the 2018 season, Gardenhire walked into his office at Comerica Park to find it completely tricked out in all sorts of A&M swag – pennants, lights, the whole office was done up in Aggie maroon.

And Wilson got Gardenhire good this spring, too. He sneaked into his office at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland and taped an air horn to the bottom of his chair. At 6:30 a.m., as Gardenhire was about to sip his coffee and start his day, he got the jolt of his life.

“First thing in the morning,” Gardenhire said. “Scared the (expletive) out of me. I just got dressed, I put on my uni, I came and I sat down and then (I heard) a foghorn. I jumped straight back up in the air and I’m looking around. Scared the crap out of me.”

Gardenhire vowed revenge.

“Wait until you see his motor home in a few days,” Gardenhire said. “I’ve already put in an order. I’m getting the biggest set of longhorns you’ve ever seen and I’m going to bolt them onto that sucker.”

Progressive old-schooler

The humor was constant. So were the malaprops and nicknames. The pandemic was the “pandemenic.” And his players were Croney (C.J. Cron), Shoopy (Jonathan Schoop), Goody (Niko Goodrum), Mizer (Casey Mize), Skoobs (Tarik Skubal), Matty (Boyd), Bull (Turnbull) and Rey-Rey (Victor Reyes).

But it wasn’t all playtime. The work was constant, too. Gardenhire’s first mission with the Tigers was to clean up the fundamentals that had grown lax, especially at the big-league level. Nothing made him angrier than outfielders missing or ignoring cut-off throws.

“See that guy standing 30 feet in front of you with his arms raised?” he’d implore. “Throw him the ball.”

Another pet peeve was pitchers not backing up home or third base after they’ve given up hits.

“Don’t stand in the middle of the diamond feeling sorry for yourself when they’ve got runners going all over the place and we’re throwing the ball around,” he’d say. “You’ve got someplace to be. Get there.”

He had a love-hate relationship with analytics but over the years had grown to fully accept and respect the value of the data he complained about being bombarded with on a daily basis – to the point where the Tigers deployed more shifts than any team in baseball this year and he used his bullpen entirely based on what the analytics charts mandated.

He was old-school and he was progressive.  

Ron Gardenhire

In so many ways, Gardenhire was the perfect manager for a team in the early stages of a rebuild. But that shouldn’t be his legacy. He was also the manager who took six talented Minnesota Twins teams to division titles.

He was patient. He understood the process he was in charge of. But the losses ate him up.

“Look at the last three years and the all the struggles and all the battles, one of the constants was his leadership in the clubhouse,” said Lloyd McClendon, who will manage the club the rest of the year. “Just how the players went about their business, they were upbeat and fighting every day and I think that speaks volumes about the leader Gardy was.

“Our players left it all on the field every day.”

Gardenhire joked about all the psychology classes he took at Texas, but he truly was masterful at reading his players and empathizing with them.

“What made him so good for us through this rebuild and what we endured together – it wasn’t easy – was his personality,” Daniel Norris said. “He was just so positive. Of course he was upset when we lost, but I can think of a bunch of times he came in after a loss and gave us like a 10-second pep talk and that’s all we needed.

“It was like he knew exactly what to say at just the right time. His timing was perfect, and his tone. We wanted to win for Gardy and we wanted to work hard for him. He is a special person and someone I will very much miss.”

Health and family first 

It was clear most of this year, especially after the pandemic hit and shut the game down for three months, that something was amiss. Gardenhire’s energy was lower than usual. The jokes and wise cracks were more infrequent. He talked about being tired. A cancer survivor who battles diabetes, he was rightly frightened by COVID-19.

He soldiered through, but during the Tigers series in Minnesota earlier this month, he was felled by a stomach virus. It started to become clear that this might be his last season. Nobody, though, expected him to abruptly announce his retirement Saturday.

“Really shocked,” Turnbull said. “Some of the guys might’ve known he was planning to retire at the end of the year, but I didn’t even know that. I just love him death and I want whatever is best for him. I feel extremely blessed to have him as my manager for the early part of my career.”

A Comerica Park videoboard displays a thank you message to Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, who announced his retirement prior to the game.

Daniel Norris said the thing that connected Gardenhire to players, players of every age, was a pure, genuine love of the game of baseball. And he guessed that’s what probably broke Gardenhire’s heart the most.

“He was not only sad about leaving us, he was sad to leave the game,” Norris said. “I don’t know if he will ever get back into baseball again, but he loves it so much, I can see him come back at some point. You could see the joy he had every day when he came to the field.”

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Norris said he loved watching Gardenhire and Ramon Santiago play catch, as they did every day before batting practice.

“They were working on pitches, throwing cutters that didn’t cut and they thought they were nasty,” Norris laughed. “We were like, that’s not a good pitch. But you could tell he loved it every time the ball hit the mitt, he loved that sound.”

Norris and probably every person whoever played the game can relate to that. Sitting at home during the long, cold winter dreaming of hearing the crack of the bat and the sound of a ball smacking into a baseball glove.

“There’s something to be said about that,” Norris said. “The sound of the mitt is such a staple in all our lives, the crack of the bat. He never took that for granted, which I think is really cool. People who are really passionate about baseball, that’s the stuff you really appreciate.

“From my perspective, obviously, I am younger than him. But I look at someone who made it this far in baseball and still they appreciate things like that, that just shows me the passion you were born with can burn throughout your entire life.”

If that’s the one thing Gardenhire imprinted in his three years in Detroit, and it certainly is not the only thing, then he made a positive and indelible mark.  

Twitter @cmccosky