Ron Gardenhire goes deep on winding road to Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire

Correction: John Boggs is the agent for Ron Gardenhire. His last name was incorrect in an earlier version.

Lakeland, Fla. — He was well into a night of dining last week at a longtime Italian food oasis, Scarpa’s, when Ron Gardenhire mentioned a conversation from last October with Carol, his wife and the woman who now was sitting next to him at a dark corner table creased by candlelight.

They each were driving cars from Phoenix, Arizona, to their home in Oklahoma, Ron following Carol, along Interstate 40 “somewhere in New Mexico” and talking by way of in-vehicle iPhones as the Painted Desert’s landscape flew by.

Ron had another year on his contract as Diamondbacks bench coach. But he wasn’t going back.

“I’m done,” he told Carol. “I had a blast. But I think I’m done. Torey Lovullo (Diamondbacks manager) doesn’t need me.

“I’ve had enough.”

Or so he thought. Three weeks later he was the Tigers’ new manager. It had been maybe a day after he had made his I-40 proclamation when his agent, John Boggs, called. The Red Sox were interested. The Tigers were inquiring.

“Oh, my,” he said to himself. “Here I go.”

And there he went — straight into the maw of a Tigers remodeling project, which to a man worried about winning immediately might look like a good place to get fired.

But no. Gardenhire understands who he is. And why the Tigers chose him over so many others who all wanted this Tigers job, no matter that some tough reconstruction — or, as it often is known, losing — lay ahead.

Ask a 60-year-old man who last worked in 2014 after 14 seasons as Twins skipper if he’s been restored by a layoff, and Gardenhire swallows hard on his sip of Malbec.

“Big time,” he said. “I’m about as rested as you can be.”

The Tigers knew as much when they brought him to town last October for a sit-down. They saw it at dinner that night at Hyde Park, a Birmingham steak house. They got a clear read the next morning at Al Avila’s home in Bloomfield Hills.

The interview there lasted a couple of hours. Avila, the Tigers general manager, and his phalanx of front-office associates — David Chadd, Scott Bream, Dave Littlefield, Al Kaline, Alan Trammell, etc. — quizzed Gardenhire on everything a manager confronts, and would confront in Detroit, which isn’t a tidy list.

It was now time to board a Metro Car for the airport and a flight to Boston for his next sit-down, with the Red Sox.

“Sorry, guys, but I’ve got to go to Boston,” Gardenhire said.

Avila laughed and said: “You really don’t have to.”

In fact, the deal was done. In their hearts, anyway. The Tigers knew they wanted Gardenhire following Brad Ausmus’ four-year run as Tigers skipper. Gardenhire had always seen in Detroit and in the Tigers something authentic, something affirmed during his evening and morning with the front office.

He knew of the town’s baseball lore. How Tiger Stadium always left him awed in the manner of a traveler laying eyes on the Eiffel Tower or on the Great Pyramids.

“It’s gone,” he said, with more than a touch of melancholy, lamenting Tiger Stadium’s razing and disappearance. “You’d think they’d have bronzed it.

“My first experience at old Tiger Stadium, I remember just staring out and watching. That ballpark was stunning.”

He remembers, long before Twins-Tigers tussles at Comerica Park and the Metrodome in Minneapolis, games in Detroit when Sparky Anderson would stand in the dugout, hands in the pockets of his blue Tigers jacket, taking in a ballgame’s nuances.

‘Big splash in Detroit’

Gardenhire was working then as Twins skipper Tom Kelly’s third-base coach. One night at Tiger Stadium in the early 1990s, a Twins runner was parked at third base and held for a moment on a ground ball to Lou Whitaker at second. Whitaker feigned a play to first. Gardenhire cued the runner, who broke for home. Whitaker, though, had set a Sweet Lou-style trap. He wheeled and fired a bullet to Mickey Tettleton that nailed the runner.

“Whitaker got me,” said Gardenhire, who afterward was feeling as if he should take a leap off the Ambassador Bridge.

Anderson instead cornered him after the game. A white-haired, Hall of Fame-bound skipper needed Gardenhire to know miscues happen and that a split-second decision Gardenhire wished he could rescind wasn’t going to torpedo a man whose reputation was soaring.

“There are two guys we talk about,” Anderson told him, a reference to Anderson and his coaches, who knew all about Gardenhire, as well as a young minor-league commander in the Padres’ system who was about to break onto the grand stage.

“You and Jim Riggleman.”

Anderson nodded and said: “I think someday you’re gonna manage in the big leagues.”

Gardenhire was the top American League manager in 2010, but his Twins teams fell short in October.

Gardenhire could cancel that bridge plunge, after all. He had revered Anderson since Sparky’s days in Cincinnati running the Big Red Machine on which Gardenhire’s favorite player and fellow Oklahoman, Johnny Bench, was a star.

“I could have retired that night a contented man,” Gardenhire remembers, still touched by an opposing manager’s words and by the boost he had gotten from Anderson, whom, he believes, had probably been briefed during Anderson’s occasional chats with Kelly.

A decade later Gardenhire was steering the Twins as yearly firefights with the Tigers began burning at the Metrodome and at Comerica Park. Jim Leyland was the new man in Detroit and watched as Gardenhire’s gang beat them for the division championship on the final day of the 2006 regular season, Leyland’s first year in Detroit.

The Tigers still made it to the World Series that year. But they lost a gut-cleaving division title to Minnesota in 2009, in a 12-inning playoff game that saw the Twins twice rally late to win, 6-5. It was the kind of torture so often staged at the Metrodome with its rubbery turf that created weird bounces, and with fly balls that could be lost against the dome’s dirty-white background. Together, the ballpark and the players who wore Minnesota uniforms made Gardenhire’s teams Motown’s baseball monster.

Gardenhire concedes those Tigers-Twins games were among the purest distillations of baseball skill and talent in which he has been involved as a player, coach or manager.

He knew Tigers hearts regularly were shredded. But he also bore for the Tigers, and for Detroit’s fans, a respect hewn by a charter big-league town that knows baseball and treasures its rivalries.

Leyland knew it as well. A decade ago he would be asked, privately or publicly, to name the manager he most respected, the one he found most challenging.

Always, it was Gardenhire.

“I thought he had strengths in every area, and that’s hard to come by,” Leyland said when asked Monday to explain what made Gardenhire exceptional. “He always ran a good game, inning one through inning nine. He knew personnel, knew his players and what made them tick. He handled the press well. He handles his coaches well.

“And he’s a presence. He’s a teacher. He’s a manager. He’s a coach. He’s a combination of a lot of things.

“He puts a lot of thought into his job, and he’s a people person. And that’s very important. These kids (players) are under a lot of pressure. You’ve got to keep them calm. He’s just got a feel for what to do.

“I think he’s going to be a big splash in Detroit,” Leyland said. “He has respect for the game. And he has respect for the fans.”

He also has quite a life story, international in flavor.

‘You have disco eyes’

Gardenhire was born on an Army base in Butzbach, Germany, which was then part of West Germany three years before the Berlin Wall was raised.

His father, Clyde, was a career Army man who later was stationed with the family at Fort Ord, in California’s Monterey Peninsula. Clyde retired young and the clan moved to Clyde’s native Oklahoma, where he found post-Army work as a security officer at Oklahoma State Tech.

Ron was playing baseball, well, as a right-handed hitting infielder and playing high school football, almost as well, as a free safety until he hurt his knee. He also was a splendid wrestler, competing anywhere from 132 to 141 pounds.

The Gardenhires’ collective dream, of course, was for Ron to play college baseball for the Sooners. But when only a sliver of a scholarship was offered, he opted for Paris (Texas) Junior College, where the coaching staff and probable playing time enticed a man who was 6-foot, 175 pounds.

He starred there and soon learned his dad was being cornered at games by University of Texas coach Cliff Gustavson.

“I can’t afford to send my son there,” Clyde said.

Gustavson shook his head: “You won’t have to afford it. He’ll have a full scholarship.”

It was about this time that Ron was playing in a summer league in Wichita, Kansas. One night, Gardenhire headed with a teammate to Wichita’s version of Studio 54 — a big-box discotheque called Pogo’s.

Gardenhire, with pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, already feels at home.

He was playing pinball when his teammate’s girlfriend arrived, accompanied by an attractive friend with long blonde hair named Carol Kissling.

Gardenhire’s intro is remembered 41 years later with a grin (Ron) and with a wince (Carol).

“You have disco eyes,” he said, which the two agree did not qualify him for induction into the All-Time Lines Hall of Fame.

Carol all but committed him to the ashcan. But a couple of weeks later they found themselves at a team get-together. By this time, Gardenhire had spruced up his oratory.

He also learned that Kissling, a Wichita State student working on a paralegal degree, was from a baseball family and knew the game.

“She started coming to games,” Gardenhire recalled. “She was the only girl who ever straight-out said to me: ‘You really sucked tonight. How did you miss that ball?’

“That was good for me. Pretty soon I said: ‘I think I love this girl.’ ”

They were married two years later and have three children: Toby, who is manager of the Twins Single A team at Cedar Rapids, as well as two daughters, Tiffany and Tara, and two young grandchildren.

There were, of course, playing days and seasons to complete before Gardenhire headed for the minors to begin work as a skipper. He was drafted out of Texas by the Mets and played 285 games in the big leagues as an infielder, batting .232, with four home runs.

Ah, but the slider.

“I couldn’t hit it,” he says of baseball’s nastiest pitch, “and I couldn’t lay off it.”

Among baseball’s intelligentsia there was a thought that Gardenhire was managerial timber. And so, after a trade to the Twins, it was decided Gardenhire needed to get busy with what seemed a more natural baseball vocation.

His teams shined at Single A and Double A, which spurred Kelly to bring him on as coach, his Twins post for 11 seasons until Kelly retired and Gardenhire took over.

He was American League Manager of the Year in 2010, but his Twins teams, unlike the Tigers, lacked the power starting pitching that so often made the Tigers lethal in October.

Cancer scare

The Twins later began aging and heading into a down-cycle much as the Tigers have the past four years. Gardenhire was fired at the end of the 2014 season, an end so decidedly non-bitter that his boss, Twins GM Terry Ryan, asked Gardenhire a year later to return as a part-time special assistant, keeping an eye on the team’s minor leagues.

“I got the juices going again,” Gardenhire remembers of that reunion with baseball in 2016. “Hitting fungos to the kids, talking to the coaches. I said, boy, this is really cool.”

But he wasn’t sure his passion and baseball’s politics were going to lead to another job as big-league skipper.

“You start seeing all the different hires,” said Gardenhire, digging into a plate of scallops and linguine. “I thought it was probably over.”

He had double doubts when, after Lovullo had hired him as Diamondbacks bench coach, Gardenhire got a call from his doctor.

“Your PSA is high,” the doctor said of a test that measures prostate-specific antigen in a man’s blood.

Gardenhire’s PSA printout had always been sterling. But the doctor wanted him back in Minneapolis for a follow-up.

“When?” Gardenhire asked.

“Now,” said the doctor, who thought benign lesions were the culprit. Twelve biopsies showed something quite different.

“You have prostate cancer,” Gardenhire was told.

There were treatment options — seedings, robotic procedures — but Gardenhire decided with doctors on a more aggressive approach:

“Let’s get it out,” he said.

Gardenhire, 60, seen during practice recently in Lakeland, is a presence, a teacher, a manager and a coach, says retired manager Jim Leyland.

He is cancer-free and feeling better than he has in years, in part because a year ago he got serious about joining Carol on her multi-mile walks and on bicycle jaunts. It dropped his weight from 275 to the lower 200s and has left him savoring life to the max, minus some “through the roof” blood-sugar levels that were also hammering him pre-surgery and now have eased.

He and Carol have a life away from baseball and their long strolls. For them, it’s an early evening pastime, their commitment to a range of game shows: “The Price is Right” … “Family Feud” … “Jeopardy” … or, as Ron says: “Pat and Vanna” — also known as “Wheel of Fortune.”

“If you don’t see me out there at game time some night, don’t worry,” he says, deadpan. “I’ll be watching ‘The Price is Right.’ ”

He maintains a collection of movies he can’t avoid re-watching, no matter how many times he’s seen them: “My Cousin Vinny,” “Miracle,” “Secretariat” and “Sling Blade,” which fostered Gardenhire’s hilarious Billy Bob Thornton takeoff, straight from the voice of the main character, Karl Childers.

“Don’t think that was a very good pitch,” he might growl, gutturally, to a coach after something fat was just tattooed by an opposing batter.


But it’s otherwise business, all business, with Gardenhire and with his teams. His spring camp in Lakeland has been a seminar on defense and base-running. He is intertwined with his coaches, and especially with pitching coach Chris Bosio.

One five-minute snippet of Gardenhire on a baseball field is a time-machine return to those Twins-Tigers dogfights from a decade ago. Gardenhire is involved, animated. He is verbal. And he is in rapture managing the Tigers.

“The teaching part — it’s still the best part of this job,” he said, handing the Tigers, as well as fans who have been making a fuss over him in Lakeland, a joint salute.

“It’s better than OK here,” he said, finishing his glass of Malbec. “I just don’t know if I’ve ever felt so much a sense of family.

“And you know what I most like so far?

“Seeing all the people smile.”

Gardenhire knows also that this is spring. Tough stuff’s ahead. But a man and a team that always seemed destined to someday get together are now joined.

Class is in session.