Henning: With a grill, and golf, Gardenhire handles pandemic's bashing of baseball

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

His day begins at 5:30, 6, 6:30 — maybe as late as 7 a.m. if something the night before has kept Ron Gardenhire from an early bedtime.

He watches the news. Then he cooks breakfast, on his beloved Blackstone flat-iron grill, which he’ll fire up later that evening, searing chicken or steak, shrimp or fish, or whatever entrée he and wife Carol have opted for, alongside plenty of sizzling onions, peppers, or zucchini grabbed from Publix’s fresh-produce aisle during rare trips to the store.

The Tigers manager is managing during a pandemic.

Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire has been spending his time grilling and watching game shows as he waits for the MLB season to start.

Best of all, Carol hasn’t thrown him out of the house.

“I’ve challenged her to really like me,” Gardenhire said, with the usual fun he pokes at himself.

This has been some May, the Tigers skipper agrees. No baseball games. No real sense for when, or if, games might be played in 2020.

So, after packing up during spring camp, when COVID-19 shut down TigerTown four weeks into spring camp, he and Carol trekked home to Fort Myers Beach, their Florida haven when not in Michigan during baseball season, or at their getaway in Oklahoma.

That would be Ron’s place on Okmulgee Lake. It’s not far from where he grew up and went to high school. And that’s where he and Carol decided to head last week after too many weeks of confinement and after too many people were unleashed by a governor’s preference to get on with life, coronavirus or not.

“Florida had opened up everything,” Gardenhire said during a phone conversation. “It kind of scared me.”

Filling a void

Late last week they drove north on I-75. Two days and 20 hours later they were at Okmulgee, joining daughter Tiffany, her husband Michael, and their two grandchildren, Ronnie, who is 5, and Rosie, who’s 2.

Ron had been busy since.

Well, not really.

The previous day he and Ronnie and the gang fished from their two-slot deck, in 15-20 feet of water in which last winter and before a bunch of Christmas trees had been dumped.

Burying those trees at sea was strategic.

Crappies, a savory freshwater pan fish, love the habitat decaying pines offer.

“Caught a ton yesterday,” Ron said. “Filleted a bunch of ‘em.”

And, of course, those fillets soon were hissing on the Blackstone.

“I love to wok,” Gardenhire said, explaining that he digs wok dishes, same as he relishes the high-heat way in which food sizzles on Japanese Teppanyaki griddles.   

“I love to chop things up,” he said. “Then, do ‘em right on that hot flat-iron. Cut it all up, get the soy sauce and soak it in — have fun with it.

“I always have loved cooking.”

A critical question: How was the wine stash holding up? Ron and Carol know their wines.

“We’ve killed it,” Gardenhire said, in his usual deadpan.

Their lives always have had baseball as an eight-month centerpiece.

Now, they aren’t sure about any baseball reunions in 2020. No one is.

This week the Tigers were supposed to have been playing a four-game set against Gardenhire’s old team, the Twins, at Comerica Park. Thursday night: a charter flight to Seattle for a weekend series against the Mariners.

Instead, he and Carol were cooling it this week with the kids in Oklahoma.

Waiting game

They’ll head back at some point to Fort Myers Beach. And there the Florida routine will resume.

After the grillmaster has finished with his bacon and eggs on the Blackstone, he and Carol faithfully watch "The Price is Right" and "Let’s Make a Deal."

Then, maybe, they’ll go for a walk. Or, Ron might play golf at Eastwood Golf Course, usually with a couple of buddies and with his son, Toby, who lives nearby and who was set to manage the Twins' Triple-A team at Rochester, New York, before a certain virus socked the world.

"It’s what baseball does very well, gives you a passion, somewhere you can turn to clear your mind and just watch a ballgame and root for your team," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire says.

Occasionally, they’ll climb onto Ron’s 31-foot NauticStar, pushed by two 300-horse engines, and enjoy a few hours on the Gulf of Mexico.

Later, after their evening feast is over and the griddle has been scraped, it’s time for two more staples: "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy."

Binge-watching a TV series? That’s not for the Gardenhires. Not unless it’s an excess of Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek.

They are doing their share of partying with friends by way of Zoom. A favorite game is Psych.

Again, the droll follow-up from Ron: “Psych’s a good game — I’m becoming more analytically sound,” says the manager who’s supposedly an analytics dinosaur.

But he isn’t kidding about blessings. And they, he says, abound for one family during this time.       

“We know there’s been a lot of struggling, and a lot of lives lost,” he said. “That will make anyone feel much more fortunate to be with family. And to treasure it.”

Naturally, he stays in touch with baseball people. And with his boss, Al Avila, the Tigers general manager.

“I talk with Al quite a bit,” Gardenhire said. “He’s hearing about the same thing as far as what’s next.

“Once a week, we do a Zoom session with the commissioner (Rob Manfred). Just talk about updates, where we’re at, and that’s been good — it’s just refreshing to listen to the commissioner talk, or Chris Young (MLB senior vice president).

“Just kind of keeping us up on things. No big breakthroughs. Everybody wants to play. It’s just a matter of whether we can do it health-wise — it’s all going to get down to that.”

Health. There is physical health, the kind that must be stronger than something called COVID-19 if big-league teams play games in 2020.

And there is mental health. With the golf course green, and the Gulf water blue, and the occasional break in Oklahoma to see a daughter and grandkids, spirits are strong for a Tigers manager.

Make it a grill and a game show, and there, in one skipper’s mind, you have all the luxuries required.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.