Detroit — It all started with a joke. At least, that's what it seemed to be, as jokes are followed by laughter, and this one-liner from Ron Gardenhire certainly was.
When talking about the Tigers' hyped batch of prospects — especially on the pitching side — at Double-A Erie, Gardenhire, in a Wednesday morning interview with MLB Network radio, quipped, "That's a group that I hope I don't get fired before they're here."
But the Tigers' beat writers opted not to leave well enough alone before the second game of the three-game series with the Cleveland Indians, when Gardenhire was peppered with questions about his future.
He's in Year 2 of a three-year contract, but Year 2 has been if not historically awful, then pretty darn close.
"I don't," Gardenhire said when asked how much he thinks about his future. "I go day to day. That's all we ever do. I have a contract for next year and if they want me to come back next year, that's fine. If they don't want me to come back next year, then so be it.
"I've been in baseball a long, long time, and we're doing everything we can. Next year, let's see where we go. Next year, that's up to Al (Avila, general manager) and those guys. They'll sit down at the end of the year (and make) decisions they want to make and what they want to do moving forward."
Gardenhire, 61, is in his 15th season managing, an eternity in the baseball world. The first 13 were with the Minnesota Twins, with whom he won six American League Central championships.
At the time of his hiring, Gardenhire's three-year deal ran concurrently with Avila's contract as general manager, but that changed when this summer Tigers CEO Christopher Ilitch surprisingly extended Avila's contract for an undisclosed number of years. During Avila's press conference announcing the move, in early July, Avila said his deal "doesn't affect (Gardenhire) at all."
"Gardy is our manager and he's done a great job," Avila said then. "We brought him in to manage this young, rebuilding team and we think he's doing a marvelous job. At this point, there is no issue there at all."
Gardenhire said Wednesday he hasn't discussed his future with Avila.
Avila told The Detroit News the team fully intends to bring Gardenhire back for a third season but the two haven't discussed it.
The Tigers were 64-98 in 2018, Gardenhire's first year, and were 39-90 entering Wednesday night's game. They need just five wins to avoid matching the 2003 Tigers for most losses in American League history.
"Yeah, it's been rough," Gardenhire said. "I feel for the guys out there and in the clubhouse and the coaching staff that work so hard. They're all trying, they're trying really hard. It's on me. My name's stamped on this thing. And I feel it every day.
"I've been through a lot of baseball games and I root for them just like everybody else ... Unfortunately, I can't swing for them, I can't catch for them."
Ouch. That's coming from a career .232 hitter.
Gardenhire didn't exactly come into this Tigers' situation with rose-colored glasses. The Tigers, not at all resembling the teams of 2006-13, were in full rebuild mode.
And the reality in baseball is, usually the manager who oversees the rebuild isn't there when the thing finally gets turned around. See Trammell, Alan, and Leyland, Jim.
Gardenhire also had a taste of this in his last years with the Twins. The Twins lost 99, 96, 96 and 92 games in his last four years. Gardenhire-managed teams since the start of 2011 are 368-571. That's a .391 winning percentage.
"It was pretty rough over there," Gardenhire said of his final years with the Twins, "but this year's been tough, yeah. Probably as tough as I've ever had to go through, just not being able to win at home is the most frustrating thing (17-44).
"Don't have an answer for it, don't understand it."
It's hard to tell what Avila's thinking on the Gardenhire front. He has said all the right things in public.
Moving on after this season wouldn't seem to make sense, as the Tigers aren't expected to contend next year anyway.
Then again, next year could see the call-ups of a lot of those kids Gardenhire raved about from Erie — Casey Mize, Eastern League pitcher of the year Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, and Tarik Skubal — and from Toledo, Beau Burrows, and that's just on the arms side.
Avila might want a fresh perspective to see the kids through. Or he might not.
We do know this. Gardenhire, who could spend his days fishing and tossing back cocktails, or seeing the country in an RV, was asked point-blank if he wants to be back next season.
"Yeah," he said, matter-of-factly. "I signed a three-year contract. That's to be determined where they want to go and what they want to do, but I enjoy this and I love this city.
"It's been frustrating though, so I understand either way."