Detroit – Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire is finally back in Fort Myers after a Planes, Trains and Automobiles-type sojourn over the holidays, which included welcoming a baby granddaughter, getting stranded in Atlanta for two days and driving back and forth between Minnesota and Oklahoma.
Forgive him if he took a day to regather his bearings.
“Everything is good,” he said.
Gardenhire left the MLB Winter Meetings on Thursday, Dec. 14, and flew back to Fort Myers. The plan was to first fly to his home in Oklahoma, drive to Minneapolis to pick up his daughter, her dog and her cat, then drive them all back to Oklahoma for Christmas.
“But I got stuck in Atlanta,” he said. “That’s when that whole thing blew up, power went out and all that. I was stuck for two days in Atlanta. But finally I got out.”
From Oklahoma, he flew to Minneapolis to fetch his daughter and her animals. He packed everybody up in his truck and drove them back to Oklahoma for Christmas. That’s when baby Amber was born, to his eldest daughter.
“That was something,” he said. “We have a (grandson), Ronny Jr., who is 3 years old and now we have a brand-new granddaughter.”
After Christmas, Gardenhire packed the truck up again and drove his younger daughter and her pets back to Minnesota.
“She didn’t want to kennel them,” he said. “She asked me if I could do it and I said, ‘OK.’ It was actually nice getting to hang out with my daughter. You don’t get to spend a lot of time with them anymore. It was kind of cool.”
Finally, he and his wife are back in Fort Myers and he’s ready to get to work. Pitchers and catchers report Feb. 13, and he’s got a new roster to learn. Strewn across his kitchen table are files with biographical data on each of his players and since Wednesday, he’s been busy trying to reach out and talk to each guy.
“I am going to touch base with all them,” he said. “I will leave a message if I have to. I just want them to hear my voice and let them know what I’m after and what I am about. I wanted to wait until after the holidays and the New Year before I started the process.
“I am going to get a chance to see them up in Detroit (at TigerFest Jan. 27) and shake their hands, but I want to touch base with them first and that’s what I going to do.”
His first calls, to veterans Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, initially went unanswered. Cabrera has been vacationing in Spain with his family, and nobody was answering at Casa Martinez.
“I called them but it’s kind of a weird thing,” Gardenhire said. “You can’t leave a message (on their phones). So I have to figure a new route with those guys. We’ll get with them.”
He has talked to both right fielder Nick Castellanos and starting pitcher Michael Fulmer.
“Nick is excited about the outfield,” Gardenhire said. “He said he felt really comfortable out there last year and he was able to relax. Those are good things to hear. And I just told him a little about the coaching staff and how we are going to approach things.
“It was a good conversation.”
Castellanos was moved to right field in September after four seasons as the Tigers’ starting third baseman. Although he was tepid about the move, it did seem to free him mentally from whatever mental baggage his defensive struggles at third base were causing.
He had a monster September at the plate, hitting .359 with a .632 slugging percentage (seven home runs, 11 doubles, 25 RBIs) and a 1.010 OPS.
“I talked to Nick before Thanksgiving,” general manager Al Avila said during the Winter Meetings last month. “He was starting to work on playing the outfield and he asked me if he should also take ground balls at third base. I said, ‘Absolutely. The more versatility you bring, the better for you and the better for the organization.’”
But Avila made it clear, Castellanos would come to spring training as the team’s everyday right fielder. And after his conversation Wednesday, Gardenhire believes Castellanos is fully committed.
“He told me he was excited,” Gardenhire said. “Now it’s just a matter of working hard and having a good spring training.”
Gardenhire said Castellanos planned on getting to camp early and doing daily drill work with outfield coach Dave Clark.
“There are things he can do now that once the season starts are harder to do,” Gardenhire said. “Spring training is the perfect time and he’s going to get there and work with Clarkie. We had a good conversation and that’s what I am after.”
With Fulmer, Gardenhire had to establish a few ground rules relative to Oklahoman rooting interests. Gardenhire grew up in Okmulgee, about 105 miles from Fulmer’s hometown of Edmond. But while Fulmer is a devout Oklahoma Sooner fan, Gardenhire, snubbed by Sooners' recruiters, played his college ball at Texas.
“We got that all straightened out,” Gardenhire said, laughing. “That’s what we Okies do.”
Fulmer, whose season was shortened by ulnar nerve transposition surgery last year, has been working out in Lakeland and is throwing out to 125 feet already.
“He said he feels great, in fact, he said he felt nothing,” Gardenhire said. “I have full trust in our staff down there. I just told him to take your time and be patient. With the cold weather and everything, just be patient.”
Two calls down, 38 or more to go.