Henning: Gregarious Gardenhire getting used to Tigers, and Detroit

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Ron Gardenhire

Detroit – Somewhere between shuffling pitching schedules, showing up for games that end up being canceled, watching hitters swing bats indoors, and figuring out how many layers of Tigers apparel he can stuff beneath a warm-up jacket, Ron Gardenhire has found time this month to break in a new home.

He and his wife, Carol, live in Troy. So far, so good, even if they’re free to wonder why they didn’t put in an offer on an igloo.

“Getting to know the community, driving all over,” Gardenhire said Tuesday as the Tigers bundled up for an evening game against the Orioles, which they later won, 4-2, at polar Comerica Park.

“My wife’s shopped at every store,” he said, as deadpan as a stand-up comic. “I’ve been to a couple of grocery stores myself, to Target …”

And then he tried to remember a colossal place he had visited, which sounded a lot like a store on the east side of Coolidge Road, south of Maple.

“Meijer’s!” he said after someone had jogged his memory. “Meijer’s – yes. They have more wine and alcohol in there than you find in a liquor store.”

So, the domestic side of managing baseball in Detroit is going well. Competitively – ah, the weather probably improves before the Tigers will. In any significant way, that is, which doesn’t mean the season is lost or that Gardenhire’s job is any less important.

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He has two new regular infielders, a transplanted player in right field, newcomers in left field and in center field, and a pitching staff that might as well work from home for as much as the Tigers have been able to play actual games during this brutal allegation known as spring 2018.

He has a lot of managing to do here – managing as in planning, juggling, allocating, talking, meeting, deciding, all while acting as classroom professor to players ranging in experience from Dixon Machado to Victor Martinez.

Gardenhire’s ways and style were on stage during spring camp and there were no surprises. A seasoned skipper who has worked more than 2,100 games knows how to run a big-league team.

He had been in town only three weeks and for 13 games as the Tigers and Orioles set aside ice-scrapers and grabbed gloves and bats for Tuesday night’s testament to hypothermia.

What we know, based on 60 days of evidence, is concise.

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Gardenhire is a high-energy talker and doer. He is, in fact, a contrasting personality to Brad Ausmus, which might or might not have been part of the Tigers’ strategy as they mulled choices following four seasons of Ausmus at the helm. Ausmus was low-key. He was subtle. He was not animated, not as a rule, although everyone remembers that wondrous night when, fuming over an umpire’s call, he pulled off his sweatshirt and laid it across home plate as an in-your-face to the ump.

This does not make either approach – one man more reserved, another more garrulous – right or wrong. But the Tigers clearly wanted a change in presence, which typically is how it goes when managers are replaced.

Gardenhire has a booming bass voice and a knack for color. He talks in tidy sound bites. This tends to please fans who tune in for his postgame press sessions, although we’ll see how pleased fans are with Gardenhire’s oratory in June after his team has lost six in a row for the fourth time in 2018.

The new skipper happens also to have his team’s attention. Absolutely, he does. Players probably were ready for more of a drill-instructor persona, but be careful there. While it’s true Gardenhire’s guys have been “playing hard,” as everyone in baseball likes to say in paying an ultimate compliment to players and teams, it’s true, also, that they “played hard” for Ausmus.

What matters is not so much “playing hard,” because 29 other clubs in 2018 will begin their self-critiques by saying they play as hard as a Petoskey stone. Rather, what matters is how well those guys playing hard can also play baseball.

Gardenhire is making as much of a difference, perhaps, as a manager can make with a team that still looks like a lock to lose 100 or more games.

Two areas stand out.

The team’s baserunning has been crisper, no question. Secondary leads have improved. Extra bases have been taken, minus any real recklessness. This is a difficult needle to thread. But the concentration on baserunning in Florida has carried through to these April games, even if it seems the Tigers play about as often during a week as the Lions, thanks to winter staying past checkout time.

The defense, too, has been sharper. This is more of a judgment call, and it’s thoroughly imprecise when new players are posted at different positions. Also, when the Tigers have carved it up on the field, they’ve been carving with chain saws. They’ve had their ugly moments, so no final verdicts yet.

But overall, the play simply has been an octave higher in the field than in some past years, although, again, take that hosanna advisedly when it’s early and when Jeimer Candelario naturally is going to make more plays at third than might have been made by Nick Castellanos, who now works in right field.

Gardenhire’s pitching decisions are, shall we say, managerial. No big difference from Ausmus or from the way in which Jim Leyland would have decided matters. Games have been postponed, doubleheaders have made mincemeat of plans, and 13 games spread over three weeks means bullpens haven’t yet been worn out.

Tune in at midseason after gasping relievers have just given up eight runs in three innings and folks might view Gardenhire’s choices less charitably. But for now, anyone can – or should – see he has the bullpen game down, at least to the extent a skipper can affect life.

“They can adjust,” Gardenhire said Tuesday, speaking of his players dealing with rescheduled games, canceled outdoor batting practices, and Tigers pitchers feeling as if they have been reincarnated as yo-yos. “They’ve been adjusting since they were little kids.

“So they can adjust.”

And so, of course, will a manager adapt. He knew what he was getting into with the Tigers and Detroit. It’s fair to assume, other than weather, this pretty much is what a man anticipated.