Kansas City, Mo. — Imagine being a father and getting a call from your son, “Dad, I’m going to the big leagues.”
And then imagine that the call-up puts him in the opposite dugout, trying to help your opponent beat you.
Welcome to Tigers’ manager Ron Gardenhire’s world. His son Toby, who has managed the Class-A Cedar Rapids Kernels to their sixth straight Midwest League playoff berth, will join the Twins and work with manager Paul Molitor’s staff for three games in September.
“Guess what days?” Gardenhire said.
Toby will be in the Twins dugout for the three-game series in Detroit, Sept. 17-19.
“That’s the best part and the worst part,” Ron Gardenhire said. “Because now there’s going to be a lot of crap flying. Carol (wife and mother) might be rooting for them, and that’s really going to bother me. This is really cool. He’s worked a long time for this.”
Big-league teams often bring up coaches from their minor-league affiliates in September to help work with the expanded rosters and as a reward for their labors during the season. But Toby is no stranger to the big-league atmosphere. He grew up at Target Field during the years his father coached and managed there.
“He was at the ballpark all the time,” the elder Gardenhire said. “We used to have Kid’s Day every Sunday and he was a part of that. When I was managing in the minor leagues, he would come and be the bat boy.
“I would never see him. He’d come to the park with me and the guys would just take him. Teach him all kinds of stuff."
Good and bad lessons, for sure. Gardenhire tells the story of when he was managing in Kenosha, Wis.
“We had a pitcher, Willie Banks, stud, good kid,” Gardenhire said. “I see them all sitting out in the clubhouse and Toby is right in the middle of them. I said, ‘Toby, get in here.’ And they are all saying, ‘Tell him, tell him.’
“Toby comes walking into my office and he says, ‘Dad, why are you always plexing on me?’ I said, ‘What!’ And I look out and they are all laughing. What does that even mean?”
Gardenhire never tried to influence his son toward coaching, but in retrospect, it seems an inevitable path. Toby was drafted by the Twins and rose as high as the Triple A level before starting his coaching career.
“I just told him to do what he thought is right,” Gardenhire said. “Do what you do best. He’s a good teacher. He did it in college for five years (head coach at Division III University of Wisconsin-Stout) and that helped him. As far as the (Twins) organization goes, they really liked that because being down at the lower levels, that’s what you are dealing with, teens and high school kids.”
Toby, like his father, was a light-hitting utility infielder. Unlike his father, he even served as an emergency catcher. In fact, it was as a catcher that he won a game for his father, a big-league spring game.
“We lost a catcher one spring and the next thing I know, the general manager says we’re going to bring Toby over to be one of our catchers,” Gardenhire said. “I said, ‘What? He’s not a catcher.’ And he says, ‘Well, he’s going to be one here because we don’t want to bring anyone else over.’
“I was a nervous wreck. I tried to stay away from him as much as I could.”
But, Toby was one of his players and he had to get him some at-bats, like everybody else in camp.
“We were playing the Yankees, man on third, two outs in the ninth inning and he hits a 93-hopper up the middle,” Gardenhire said. “Game-winner and everybody was jumping on him. And I thought, he hit it just like I used to.”
Last year, Toby was moved up to the Triple-A team to coach third base for three months after a coach was injured in a car accident. And he took it upon himself to work with the catchers. One of those catchers, John Ryan Murphy, ended up getting traded to the Diamondbacks last season, where Ron Gardenhire was the bench coach.
“He got into that catching stuff, the framing, all the machinery and computer stuff and Murphy was one of the guys he worked with,”
Gardenhire said. “Murphy came up to me and said, ‘Your son is impressive. He got us doing all this framing stuff and it really helped me.’”
He tells the story with a punch line — “Who, my son? He’s not a catcher” — but you can feel the pride. And you can bet there will be a lump in his throat when he sees Toby in the opposite dugout for that series in September.
“He’s a good baseball kid,” Gardenhire said. “I don’t know if he’ll ever manage in the big leagues, but he’s intelligent, he knows the analytic stuff — he’s done it all. It’s been fun to watch him grow up, and more than anything else, he’s a really good kid.
“He’s impressive. I try not to say that to him, or say that around him too much, but he really is a good kid. He handles himself well.”