Lakeland, Fla. — An hour into his first spring training with the Tigers, Ron Gardenhire, a big-league infielder long before he came a manager, stood 15 feet to the right of first base on one of the four back fields at Tigertown.
Wednesday morning’s Florida sky was bright and blue. The sun was searing.
Gardenhire dropped his glove into the infield’s dirt, scooped up a fungo-swatted ground ball, and flipped a toss to Drew VerHagen, who was finishing off one of those traditional, spring-camp opening drills where pitchers practice covering first base.
“That’s why we keep working it — very nice,” Gardenhire said as VerHagen hauled in the relay and stepped on the bag.
Pitcher after pitcher took turns making one of baseball’s more delicate timing plays.
Each time, Gardenhire offered a review. Loudly.
“Stay with it, don’t panic,” he said after a stand-in first baseman had muffed a grounder. “Don’t panic. Don’t panic.”
“I had you,” he reassured another pitcher.
“Nice play. That a way.”
“Very nice,” he repeated as the ground balls flowed, and as basic baseball plays were carved into a player’s muscle-memory. “Very nice. Tough play.”
How this newest Tigers skipper differs from his predecessors should not be overly read into. Not when players decide ballgames. But it is interesting, the subtle differences in style.
Jim Leyland hit fungoes during workouts or stood on the infield grass as players stepped through drills. He often would yell something upbeat, intermittently, as workouts wore on. Brad Ausmus, who replaced Leyland four years ago, was, in keeping with his ways, quieter. Much quieter.
The Tigers held their first official workout for pitchers and catchers in Lakeland, Fla., on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Robin Buckson, Detroit News
Gardenhire was more involved, physically and verbally, during his Tigers camp debut than any manager in memory. Snagging grounders steadily, shouting approvals or gentle critiques — this, clearly, was a man thrilled to be working again as a big-league skipper.
He admitted as much afterward as he sat in the manager’s office talking about his first on-field day with the Tigers.
“I kind of had the jitters,” he said, sitting behind a desk, still wearing his workout togs, which included a white Tigers cap and blue Tigers jersey.
He had spoken to his pitchers and catchers ahead of Wednesday’s kickoff and knew a 60-year-old’s adrenalin was at flood stage.
“I was really talking fast,” he said. “I don’t even remember what I stinking said, ’cause I was really excited to be in front of a team again.”
Not since 2014, when he was wrapping up a long stint with the Twins, has Gardenhire been a big-league team’s on-field commander in chief.
He could have chosen a better time to have come aboard. This team will take its licks in 2018. Gardenhire understands he inherited an ongoing demolition of an old roster and that new talent — young, skilled flesh destined to excite fans as well as a new skipper — probably won’t show up in quantity until sometime next season, or, more likely, even later.
But he wanted the job. And the Tigers wanted him. And there were reasons Gardenhire, who was interviewing elsewhere, decided even before he wrapped up talks with other clubs that Detroit was his choice.
He appreciates Detroit as a testament to the term “baseball town.” He knows the Ilitches have been good people for whom to work, something he likewise understood implicitly about general manager Al Avila and the Tigers front office.
Here he could be a baseball steward and imprint upon a team in transition the tenets his Twins teams so often displayed during the years when they regularly tormented Detroit.
It was the manner, in all facets, in which Gardenhire ran those Twins teams that led Leyland to always say, privately or publicly, that the opposing manager he most respected and found most challenging was Gardenhire.
So, here he was Wednesday morning, still five days before full team workouts, coaxing and tutoring and plainly at peace teaching baseball.
How much difference can he make? Can any manager, for that matter, make?
“It’s an atmosphere,” he said, sizing up a skipper’s capacity, and his limitations. “You can’t hit for them. You can’t throw for them. But creating an atmosphere … putting players in position to be the most successful.”
He acknowledged there were “expectations” on the part of baseball’s evaluators that things might be a tad bumpy at Comerica Park in 2018. He would agree baseball games are won by performers who out-perform opponents and that skill levels are primary there.
The mission, for him, and maybe for fans in 2018, is to make the most of a different brand of baseball season in Detroit. To squeeze enough baseball integrity from a no-frills roster to at least make games on many days competitive and entertaining.
To burnish the skills of new kids, as well as those owned by older guys, and turn this Tigers baseball chapter at the very least into something interesting.
It’s a lot to ask of a manager. It would have been a lot to have asked from anyone sitting in that skipper’s office Wednesday. But in a man’s booming voice you could hear the joy Wednesday.
In the machinations of a baseball classroom session you could see the resolve. Not bad ways, at all, to begin any baseball season.