Detroit – The Wiki version of Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire’s career is fairly well-known, especially to long-time Tigers followers who regularly had their hearts broken by his Twins teams.
He was with the Twins from 1991 (when he was the third base coach on their World Series-winning team) through 2014. He replaced Tom Kelly as manager in 2002 and won more than 1,000 games and six division titles over the next 13 seasons.
He was the manager of the year in 2010 and was runner-up five other times.
But since we’re about to embark on a three-year journey with this man, and since access to him has been understandably scarce since his introductory press conference, we wanted to find out more about who he is and how he is likely to operate with a rebuilding Tigers team.
So, we sought out three men who have worked and/or played with him for decades: Rick Anderson, Gardenhire’s pitching coach in Minnesota and his bullpen coach now; Joe Vavra, his hitting coach and third base coach in Minnesota for 10 years and his quality control coach now; and Michael Cuddyer, who began playing in the Twins organization in 1997 and played for Gardenhire from 2002-2011.
His relationship with Gardenhire dates to 1980, when both were playing for the Mets’ Double-A affiliate in Jackson, Miss.
“It was the first day in town,” Anderson recalled. “We made no money, none of us did. He says, ‘I can’t find a place to live that I can afford.’ So I just said, why don’t we bunk up together?”
If only it were that simple. Both were married – Anderson to Rhonda and Gardenhire to Carol.
“He had a cat and I had a dog and I just said, ‘Let’s go,’” Anderson said. “From that day on we were the best of friends.”
Same for Carol and Rhonda. And how about this for a symbiotic relationship:
“It’s funny,” Anderson said. “We were together at Triple-A (Tidewater), too, and when he went up to the big leagues, Carol was pregnant and my wife was pregnant, too. Nine months later he called and said he had a boy.
“And I said, “Rhonda just had a girl.’ On the same day. How about that.”
Anderson also learned quickly that Gardenhire was a bit of a psychic.
“It was still in the early ’80s and I still have the article,” Anderson said. “Gardy was quoted saying, ‘Someday I’m going to be a Major League manager and Rick Anderson is going to be my pitching coach.’ And in 2002 it happened and we spent 13 years together.”
Loyalty, friendship, family – these are word you hear often when people are talking about Gardenhire.
“Every Sunday home game when we were in Minnesota was kids’ day,” Anderson said. “And every Sunday he went out and threw batting practice. No matter what was going on, he threw BP to every kid.
“Listen, he’s a wonderful man to play for – a good player’s manager. He will back his players and make them relax and bring out the best in them. But he demands that you do things right. If you get after the game and play it hard, he will love you forever.”
As the Twins’ first-round pick (ninth overall) in 1997, Cuddyer was brought to Minneapolis to spend a weekend with the big-league team. It was his first indoctrination into the world of Ron Gardenhire.
“He had me out there at shortstop doing drills,” Cuddyer said. “He was the third base coach at the time. But he had me doing infield drills almost like I was doing early work for the game. I’m an 18-year-old kid and nervous, and he made me feel at ease.
“And then in 1998, 1999 and 2000, I was invited to big league camp in the spring. And even though I was going to be out of there after the first cut, he still treated me with respect, treated me as if I was on the team. That went a long way.”
Cuddyer also brought up the Sunday kids’ days. He recalled how Gardenhire wanted the wives and kids around all the time. He always worked to foster a family atmosphere around the club.
“He treated us like human beings,” he said. “More than anything, he treated us like we were not just baseball players, not just his pawns, so to speak. He treated us like human beings, and any time you treat somebody like that, you automatically get respect.
“That went a long way with a lot of us.”
What further cemented that respect, for Cuddyer, was how Gardenhire handled the transition from third base coach and good cop, to manager.
“Interesting dynamic,” he said. “He was always the guy who was everybody’s best friend and sometimes that doesn’t always work when you become the manager. You can’t really have that buddy-buddy relationship all the time.
“But he went through that transition pretty seamlessly. He continued to do the work TK (Kelly) did prior to him. He continued to focus on the attention to detail – which also went a long way with us because that was how we won. We had a lot of talent, yes, but we didn’t beat ourselves. That was a tribute to Gardy and paying attention to detail.”
In his introductory press conference in Detroit, Gardenhire probably said the phrases “attention to detail” and “play the right way” 15 times. It brought to mind another famously successful coach – former Pistons coach Larry Brown, who took paying attention to detail to maniacal extremes, often spending 20 minutes obsessing over the angle of a screen in practice.
Gardenhire isn’t quite that maniacal.
“That was how Tom Kelly was,” Cuddyer said. “He would spend 25 minutes telling you how to put your foot on the bag at first base to receive the ball. Gardy learned from that and didn’t quite take it to that extreme. Especially with this generation, that wouldn’t fly.
“Gardy is sort of a happy medium. He pays attention to detail and expects it and will spend time making sure it gets done. He’s a big reps guy.”
The Tigers are about to find out this spring just how big Gardenhire is on repetition. He will almost certainly introduce them to “Good Morning America.”
“Oh yeah,” Cuddyer said. “Every infielder, be it a combination of getting the ball rolled to him and hit to him, will probably take between 150 and 200 ground balls in the morning and probably make 50 throws from their position.
“That’s ‘Good Morning America’ and that’s paying attention to detail.”
But more than his baseball acumen, more than drill work and strategy, what separated Gardenhire from other managers for Cuddyer was his humanity. Cuddyer told the story of the year his father-in-law passed away while the Twins were in Seattle.
“He passed away in Virginia and I went in and told Gardy,” Cuddyer said. “Without skipping a beat, he said, ‘You gotta go. Indefinitely. Go take however long you need to be with your wife. Be there.’
“That’s without me even asking if I could go or for how long. Right there that told me what was important. When you treat guys like that, they want to play for you and they want to win for you and go out and fight for you.”
Vavra will tell you it’s not all warmth and kindness; that there is another layer to Gardenhire.
“He learned from Tom Kelly that you just can’t miss anything,” Vavra said. “You think he’s not looking, but he’s looking. There is no BSing him. He loves loyalty. He loves people that are accountable. There are no whispers. It’s, ‘Let’s get it out there, let’s talk about it.’ The lines of communication are always open.
“But he doesn’t like yes-men. He wants you to say it like you think. He might tell you it’s the stupidest idea in the world and you might argue about it. But he likes to hear your opinion.”
Vavra and Gardenhire have had their spats over the years, for sure.
“Oh, we’ve gone at it,” he said. “But it’s healthy. He likes it. Right or wrong, ultimately it becomes his decision. But he can base his decision on people’s true thoughts. And that’s important.”
The Tigers’ clubhouse last season turned toxic. Veteran players having poor seasons and battling injuries diluted the leadership and the clubhouse fractured. Cliques formed. Common traits of losing teams.
Gardenhire, Varva said, will be quick to douse those issues and restore harmony.
“The sidebars got to go,” Varva said. “You find out where the sidebars are and you deal with them. They’re not helping the situation. Gardy believes in having fun, you always have a good time around him. He doesn’t take anything too seriously.
“But he’s always been able to keep the brushfires from spreading. He keeps the brushfires to a minimum and doesn’t let them spread into wildfires.”
By now, Gardenhire has reached out to Miguel Cabrera, who he will lean on hard to keep order in the clubhouse next season. By now, he’s talked to Ian Kinsler, Nick Castellanos, Victor Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann and other veteran players. He’s laid out his plans and his methods and he will be counting on them to buy in from the beginning and set the tone.
“If you get players to buy in, then accountability is right around the corner,” Vavra said. “Just don’t BS the players. Hit them right between the eyes. Most of them like that and most will learn how to take it.
“We know what we are up against. We’ve been down this path before.”
Let the journey begin.