The Gardenhire way: Tigers' skipper talks of his 'label,' legacy and high hopes for 2019

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – It was Sunday, after the Tigers' last home Grapefruit League game. Manager Ron Gardenhire had spent half the day on the back fields, watching Matthew Boyd pitch against minor-league hitters. Then he walked back over to Publix Field to watch three of his bullpen arms – Buck Farmer, Blaine Hardy and Daniel Stumpf, finish out an 18-6 win by striking out seven in four innings.

Ron Gardenhire

It had been a long day for the 61-year-old skipper. What had been a mostly upbeat and drama-free camp had turned hectic with both center fielder JaCoby Jones (sprained left shoulder) and reliever Drew VerHagen (forearm strain) getting hurt with less than a week left in camp.

Since Saturday, when Jones went down, there have been endless meetings and conversations with his coaches and with general manager Al Avila. Still, he sat down for a prearranged session with The Detroit News.

The session would be interrupted several times – by pitching coach Rick Anderson, by quality control coach Joe Vavra, by assistant general manager David Chadd and by catcher Bobby Wilson, who came in to inform Gardenhire personally that he was passing on offers from other teams to re-sign with the Tigers.

But that’s how it always is with Gardenhire. They might as well remove the door from his office. And yet, as tired as he was, with many things still needing his attention before he could call it a day, there was no damper on his enthusiasm for this 2019 Tigers team and his excitement about what the season may bring.

► Question: Before you took the Tigers’ job last winter, you had interviewed with Dave Dombrowski for the Red Sox managerial position. And by all accounts, they liked you for that job. As you watched the Red Sox steamroll through the playoffs last season and celebrate their World Series championship, did it ever cross your mind that you could have been at the helm of that team?

► Gardenhire: “When we were in Fort Myers (in early March), I was down on the field and I walked right by Dave. It was the first time I’d seen him since I did the interview. I said, ‘You made the right decision.’ (Laughter.) He said, “It wasn’t about that. You were definitely in our thoughts.’”

► Question: That would have been a different situation for you, taking over an established, ready-to-win team. Players get labeled. Managers do, too. Yours seems to be as a guy who overachieves with lesser talent. The perfect manager for a rebuilding project. Is that fair? Do you ever wonder what it would be like to take over a team overflowing with elite players?

► Gardenhire: “I try not to even pay much attention to it. I’m hired to do a job and that’s manage a team, try to make a team win. The one thing I know for a fact, we did the rebuild it seemed like every other year over there (in Minnesota). We were losing players, there was no way we were going to sign most of them. We just kept adding on. Luckily, we had a strong enough organization.

“You take what you have and you manage it. Saying I’m overachieving and all of that, it’s not about that. It’s just about taking what you have here and then trying to figure out a way to get the best out of it.”

Ron Gardenhire: "I am doing something I really love, and I feel very comfortable doing it."

► Question: Do you ever think about what your legacy will be in this game?

► Gardenhire: “My legacy as a manager? You know what, I grew up as a military brat from Okmulgee, Oklahoma, and I am managing in the big leagues, and I’ve been doing it for a long time. I don’t really care what anybody else thinks about it. I am doing something I really love, and I feel very comfortable doing it.     

“And I think I have enough respect around the baseball world that I’m pretty happy with that. That’s pretty much it.”

► Question: Because you keep things light around here, because you create such a fun environment for players, there’s a perception that it’s all loosey-goosey. People don’t often see your competitive side – which is fierce.

► Gardenhire: “Just a little (laughs). I don’t know, maybe because it’s new here. I think the Twins fans always knew what was going on. I got kind of hammered over there for being too tough on players, that I was a tough, old, growly guy and all that stuff. And I’m like, whatever. People are going to make their opinions, I can’t control it or do anything about it.

“All I know is, I want to create an atmosphere where the players love coming here. I’ll be tough when I have to be tough. But believe me, I’ll be the first person that’s going to pat them on the back when they screw something up, because I’ve been there and done it, and I remember what it was like to be a player. That’s probably the biggest thing I have in this game. I remember how hard this game is.”

► Question: ast year you had a couple of blow-ups during spring training. Pitchers were standing in the middle of the diamond instead of backing up third base or home plate and you lit into them in front of the entire team. Sent a pretty strong message right out of the gate. Have you had to do that this spring?

► Gardenhire: “Not this spring. We talked about hitting the cut-off man early on. We were missing some cut-offs, had some overthrows. Those are things that frustrate me.”

Ron Gardenhire: "That’s probably the biggest thing I have in this game. I remember how hard this game is."

► Question: You made a point late last season that coaches at all levels of the organization, especially at the lower levels, needed to start holding players accountable for playing fundamentally sound baseball, for running balls out, for hitting the cut-off man, for throwing to the right base, etc. Have you seen evidence of that message taking root?

► Gardenhire: “Throughout the organization. I’m walking down the street (to the back fields) and I’m watching those kids down there and they are throwing the ball down. Today, they overthrew one and I got two coaches standing by me going, ‘Dammit, throw the ball to the cut-off man.’ That’s all I care about. That message is here; this is what we need to try to do to make us all better.

“I think the backing from the minor-league staff – they all feel like they are a part of this now and that’s really important. We are in this together. The front office, too. When you have that, and I feel pretty good about it right now, you are in good shape. Last year because I was a new guy coming in with a new staff, there might have been some separation. But I think it’s really good right now. I think we’re going in the right direction here.”

► Question: There’s a Tigers way?

► Gardenhire: “No doubt. There is no doubt. We talk about it all the time, about the Tigers way. It’s not the Ron Gardenhire way. It’s not the Al Avila way. It’s the Tigers way. It’s what we expect of these players and how they’re going to represent this ballclub and the city of Detroit. Honestly, that’s what it’s all about.

“It’s how you build a foundation. We’re trying to make sure we cover everything so that when you come to the ballpark and the game starts, we’re having fun -- win, lose or draw. Most times winning is a lot more fun, but I know we’re doing the right things right now and I feel pretty good about it.”

Ron Gardenhire: "I feel like this year, all we’ve got to do is learn how to win those close ballgames and we will be competitive with anybody."

► Question: The Tigers won 64 games last season and lost 47 games by two runs or less. You’ve added a veteran double-play combination in Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, two veteran starters in Tyson Ross and Matt Moore, Miguel Cabrera is healthy right now, Jeimer Candelario, Niko Goodrum and JaCoby Jones have full seasons under their belts. Is there a sense of some momentum building?

► Gardenhire: “I sure hope so. The league makes adjustments on you, too. But I know this, we are really comfortable with the guys we have on the field starting the ball game. Those two in the middle, I mean, it’s night and day how much they understand the game, compared to last year when we had five different guys playing second base.

“This group is playing together, they’re communicating, they’re talking – it’s just how I envisioned this thing is supposed to go, with the young guys coming up the same way.”

► Question: You are building this foundation, and the organization’s top prospects are rapidly ascending toward the big-league level. Some may get here later this year, but most, especially the group of highly-touted starting pitchers are still maybe two years away. And your contract is up after the 2020 season. How badly do you want to see this all the way through?

► Gardenhire: “I took this job knowing it was a rebuild, and they thought I was the right guy for it. Over in Minnesota, I knew we were going to be young starting out, too (2002). But those guys had some experience from the year before in Tom Kelly’s last year. When I took that job I said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to have young guys, but we can win.’”

► Question: Right, you won 90-plus games and won the division in each of your first three seasons in Minnesota.

► Gardenhire: “I feel like this year, all we’ve got to do is learn how to win those close ballgames and we will be competitive with anybody… We can compete. There’s no doubt we can compete. We have some veteran people in place, with some young people coming up. But anytime you have Miguel Cabrera and Nick Castellanos in the middle of your lineup, along with some other young hitters, we’re going to be OK. As long as we throw it over the plate and catch it, we’ll be OK.

“I don’t know how we’re going to do, no one does. But I am very happy with this club. I’m excited about it.”

Twitter @cmccosky