Gardenhire in uncharted water as Twins eye rebound
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A pocket-size, laminated copy of the Minnesota Twins' Spring Training roster is affixed to a small bulletin board in the Spring Training office of the Twins' manager. From time to time, the manager must consult the roster so he can properly identify those auditioning before him. This spring, after significant turnover in player personnel, Ron Gardenhire needs the cheat sheet as he never has during his extended tour of duty with the club. A compliment for a player has a more positive effect if it's delivered with his name, rather than his uniform number. "Way to go, Johnny" is more readily accepted than "Hey, 62, nice play."
The set of Twins that has assembled at Hammond Stadium is decidedly different from the group that gathered a year ago in this congested and well-trimmed city that has been the club's spring home since 1991. The agenda is different as well. The 2012 team could look to the performance of the preceding summer, identify it as an aberration, dismiss it as that, muster up some resolve and move forward. The current reconfigured bunch, mindful of footprints left last summer, must move forward in a different sense and execute a U-turn at the same time.
Otherwise, the stability that has been a hallmark of the organization since Tom Kelly replaced Ray Miller in 1986 might be disturbed. And that would be troubling.
For a quarter century, the Twins have been poster children -- well, twins is a plural -- for constancy. Kelly was in the dugout from Sept. 12, 1986, through the end of the 2001 season. Gardenhire moved from the third-base coach's box to the dugout in 2002 and has been there since.
That at least one big league franchise has demonstrated patience is comforting, reassuring. For quite a while, the Twins were routinely characterized as a model franchise, one that accepted and understood the fickle nature of the game and found a means to succeed without writing huge checks or best-selling books or selling movie rights. They were the quiet, unassuming guys from the Midwest, so wholesome and likeable.
But now, two almost matching seasons of losing have rendered "aberration" an inappropriate term. In a world that considers two of anything a trend, the Twins now are in danger of -- good heavens! -- creating a calamity.
This is not an impulsive franchise. It thinks before it acts? (What a concept!) But its pragmatic general manager, Terry Ryan, has witnessed successive last-place finishes that were unrewarding, unhealthy and approaching the border of unacceptable.
And so he and Gardenhire, the most agreeable tandem of general manager and manager in the big leagues, enter the 2013 season without contracts for 2014. In the land of churches, lakes and baseball stability, those circumstances warrant an extra urgent "good heavens."
Gardenhire says he isn't concerned; Ryan says, "He shouldn't be," and notes that his colleague and friend does everything asked of him, and does it well. And at the same time, Ryan acknowledges the Twins lost 99 and 96 games the last two seasons and have made significant changes to their roster, their scouts, their coaches and their Minor League staffs.
But when Ryan said Thursday, "Sometimes, change is good," he wasn't referring to the 55-year-old manager whose 11-season resume includes eight winning records, seven first-place finishes, a 925-848 record and enough good will in the Twin Cities to fill Target Field, the Metrodome and Metropolitan Stadium 10 times each.
Gardenhire is ideally suited for Twins and their followers, as was Bobby Cox for the Braves and all of Dixie, as was Casey Stengel for the first-year Mets and the New Breed fans who were fully entertained by his bumbling team, as is Bruce Bochy for the Giants and the Golden Gate crowd. Ryan sees that.
"If he wasn't such a good manager, you'd want him for his relationships and community involvement," the general manager says. Ryan also said the club is proud of its stability and said, "No doubt, he's in a good spot."
But 195 losses over two seasons are the equivalent of needles in a pillow. Hence the personnel changes. Recasting in the big league staff constitutes a different kind of needles. Anytime a manager's staff is changed, his job security appears shaky, even if it's unchanged, even in the wholesome and likeable Midwest where the manager uses the word "peachy" to characterize his situation and means it.
No matter how his circumstance appears, Gardenhire has to find a way to make the Twins what they were before 2011 -- "a team that forces errors." He uses phrasing borrowed for Kirby Puckett. "We have to be the hyenas. Run in packs. Irritate the others."
It would be beneficial if the Twins could stop the exodus of talent that has siphoned off the caliber of players who can turn a game even when the hyenas are at rest. It would wise if the Twins recognized Gardenhire as talent, not merely as the man in charge of the players.
And it would be good if all concerned saw what the A's accomplished last season as another aberration and didn't expect that sort of surge from a team in recovery. The A's surge with unproven talent could have a place in Gardenhire's job security equation too, unfair as that would be. The dozen other managers unsigned for 2014 probably will be measured against the A's improbable push, too.
Losing unnerves Gardenhire. He's mostly unfamiliar with it. The 2012 season lingered with him until he arrived here and resumed the tutoring in fundamentals that always distinguished his successful Twins teams. But he still wonders, "How do we stop it?" The losing. "How do we get the confidence back?"
Gardenhire says the last two seasons have taught him.
"I think I'm a better manager now for having gone through it," he says. "But I'd like to start winning again so I can see how much better I am. Then I'll know."
The implication there may involve the need for more talent.
A winning record would do wonders. A new contract would be nice too. If the Twins are foolish enough to cast aside this man, there undoubtedly will be other clubs -- some with more talented personnel -- that would pursue him. Gardenhire would make an attractive candidate.
And "all the things he does that would make him attractive to other teams," Ryan said, "I hope they're the reasons we bring him back."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.