Detroit – In a corner of the Brushfire Grill, where in a few months beer and sandwiches and fans and (hopefully) warmer temperatures all will converge, a new Tigers manager, Ron Gardenhire, sat at a mid-day Thursday table.
He was shaking hands and answering questions. Wearing glasses, a white beard, and a gray sport-coat ensemble, there were thoughts that, for a new skipper, this might as well have been Opening Day 2018.
This was his first public day of a new year as Detroit’s latest baseball commander.
An instant curiosity, beyond how exactly he and pitching coach Chris Bosio expect to somehow turn baseball’s worst pitching staff into something more competitive (word of warning: they probably can’t), was about residences.
Where did he plan on living now that Gardenhire’s a part-time Michigan man?
“Got the wife out searching today,” he said, explaining that Carol was checking out the usual recommendations: Royal Oak, Birmingham, Troy, and perhaps downtown Detroit, which Gardenhire can see has undergone a transformation he probably wishes his pitchers could imitate in 2018.
“Gorgeous,” he said, speaking of the renovations, new restaurants and bars, and general restoration of what once had been a dynamic American city and aspires again to be.
“I’ve always liked this town.”
A life in baseball
He talked about days 30 years ago when he was on Tom Kelly’s staff with the Twins and how playing a game at Tiger Stadium was like taking a tour of a European museum. The awe, the artistry, the baseball demigods it evoked.
He talked of his own baseball life, how a native Oklahoman had played baseball at the University of Texas, became a sixth-round Twins draft pick, and then joined the Twins as an infielder.
“From starter, to utility, to futility,” he said, cracking a joke at the manager’s expense. “The slider put me in coaching at 28 years old. I couldn’t hit it, and I couldn’t lay off it.”
So, this is what we’ll be getting this season and certainly beyond this year, even if the Tigers follow one person’s expectations and finish somewhere around 55-107 once some inevitable midseason trades are added to the rebuilding cycle.
It’s going to be a nasty year for the locals if they are fixated solely on win-loss marks. It could be a fascinating season if people instead follow this June’s draft, what’s going on in the Tigers’ revamped minors, and on what the midseason trade mart might bring in making an eventual roster re-do closer to an entertaining reality.
“I know expectations are that we’ll get whacked around a bit,” said Gardenhire, who doesn’t care to acknowledge that 2018 almost certainly will be a rebuilding’s cycle bottoming-out ahead of new talent and -- more important -- new pitching showing up at various points in 2019.
But, he said, if that happens to be the result, he isn’t worried and it never marred his appetite to manage the Tigers.
“In Minnesota, we did this all the time,” he said, speaking of roster reconstructions the Twins underwent a few times when he was coach and manager.
What kind of skipper will he be?
A thought here, long before the Tigers hired him, is that he would be as good as they could get. All because he is such a solid person and baseball man.
Gardenhire is the son of an Army first sergeant who was stationed in West Germany when Ron was born there in October 1957. To assume some of dad’s military DNA didn’t seep into a son’s blood is to assume something quite wrong. He grew up on an army base, Fort Ord, in California’s Monterey Peninsula.
It was a time he remembers as being foundational. It’s background that should reveal itself, in time, as fans study the ways in which he runs the Tigers.
“I don’t like sloppy,” he said.
And he means it.
This will not be enough, of course. You could hire a composite of George Patton and Erwin Rommel to drive the Tigers in 2018 and still lose 100 games. Gardenhire cannot pitch. Bosio can no longer pitch. And no amount of high-leverage, low-leverage chess games or sabermetrics are going to change talent realities there.
But there should be a certain assurance to what is happening in the dugout and, maybe more critically, in the Tigers clubhouse. Gardenhire knows how to command a team, good or bad. He has had rosters that cross the spectrum.
He has his own plans for spring camp. Nothing novel. Nothing dramatically different from other managers. But he understands that so much about a team’s ethic begins on those back fields, in February.
He and Carol plan on heading Feb. 1 for their winter home in Ft. Myers, Fla., where the Twins have long trained. They’ll stop along the way at Oklahoma to see their new “grandbaby.”
He will pop by the Tigers’ Florida digs in Lakeland a couple of times ahead of spring camp’s opening, at which time he’ll get a gander at the new Tigertown complex that last year opened following a nearly $50-million makeover.
He then will migrate to Lakeland on Feb. 11 for seven weeks of camp that officially begins on Valentine’s Day.
There was one question that needed to be asked Thursday. It was spurred by memories from September 2015. Al Avila had just replaced Dave Dombrowski as Tigers general manager. It was believed Ausmus would move on at the end of the season. And it was believed, personally, that Gardenhire would be Avila’s choice.
Avila, at the last moment, decided to stick with Ausmus. Gardenhire, who wanted badly to manage again after his many years with the Twins, was instead left to take, a few months later, a job as Twins special assistant to the GM, all before he became manager Torey Lovullo’s bench coach last season with the Diamondbacks.
How much did he miss managing, as if someone didn’t know?
“I really did,” he said Thursday, as the Tigers got ready to board buses for their winter publicity tour. “I really didn’t realize it till I got on the field again with Arizona.”
In a few weeks, he’ll be back in charge. Of a big-league ballclub. One he always liked, and always respected, given the tussles and mutual appreciation he and the Tigers forged for so many years.
“It’s going to be huge,” Gardenhire said, speaking of spring training, and, if he’ll pardon an interjection, also the challenge this Tigers team could present in 2018.