The same sign Ron Gardenhire hung in his office at the Metrodome, the one that reads “Improvise and Overcome,” hangs in his office at Target Field.
On another wall is a copy of a Star Tribune sports section from his first game as Twins manager, an 8-6 victory over Kansas City on April 1, 2002. Another wall is lined with scorecards from memorable wins: Win No. 1; the game that clinched the division in 2002; win Nos. 300, 500 and 600; the last game at the Dome; Game No. 163 against the Tigers in 2009; and win Nos. 700, 800 and 900.
The next memento will be the lineup card from win No. 1,000. Gardenhire sits at 997-937 after the Twins defeated the Chicago White Sox 4-3 on Wednesday.
But will it be the final keepsake he collects as manager of the Twins?
Gardenhire’s contract expires after this season, and there has been no indication from Twins management whether he will be invited back as the club nears the end of a possible third consecutive season of 90-plus losses. There figures to be a range of emotions when he becomes the 60th manager in major league history to reach the 1,000-win milestone.
Gardenhire, 55, has shown no signs of stress over his uncertain future. He has been engaging and pleasant in the clubhouse, as he has been throughout his career, and his sense of humor has remained intact.
“Carol [his wife] and I obviously talk about it,” he said. “The ‘what ifs?’: What if we’re not here next year, where are we going to go? Because my kids are up here. They live up here, work up here. So it would be naive to say we didn’t think about it and talk about it. But it’s not something I’m overwhelmed by.”
Those who have known Gardenhire throughout his professional career, as a player, coach and manager, believe he was a natural to be in a dugout, running a team.
“When we got him over here to manage Kenosha in 1988, there was no doubt he was going to become a major league manager, even back in A-ball,” said Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, whose relationship with Gardenhire goes back to the 1980s when they were in the Mets organization. “He just had that presence and he had the respect of players.”
He has, through his 26 years with the Twins organization (12 as manager), also gained the respect of his peers.
“I think Gardy has a very, very broad baseball mind and is in tune with fundamentals in every area,” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, the only current baseball manager in the majors with more tenure with one team (14 years) than Gardenhire. “He understands what’s needed on a team to be successful. He’s made the most of whatever talent he’s had on his roster, taking advantage of every aspect.”
Twins players who have experienced Gardenhire during good times — he led the club to six division titles in his first nine seasons — say he has adapted well from working with elite players to teaching inexperienced ones.
“I think the players here see him as part of the solution and not part of the problem,” closer Glen Perkins said, “and that we can win with him.”
Adapting to the talent
Behind his office desk sits the 2010 AL Manager of the Year Award, which he received after five consecutive runner-up finishes.
On his watch, he’s had two MVPs (Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer), a two-time Cy Young winner (Johan Santana), three players win Silver Slugger awards (Morneau, Mauer and Josh Willingham) and four players win Gold Glove awards (Mauer, Santana, Torii Hunter and Doug Mienkiewicz).
But while the victories and the awards have dried up the past few years, Gardenhire still believes he’s improved as a manager in several key areas.
“I think you change,” he said. “Back then I was a little more confrontational. I wasn’t afraid to get in players’ faces, screaming. I think I’ve kind of realized that players are giving you everything they have and I’m not as confrontational. I think I understand how to handle players better than I did before.”
He will still yell, like he did during a game in Boston this season when rookie Aaron Hicks casually flipped a ball after catching it. Gardenhire let Hicks have it after the inning was over. But because he’s had to manage so many inexperienced players over the past couple years, he has become more of a teacher than a screamer.
“He’s made a better effort to get more out of those guys,” Perkins said. “I think you’ve seen that with guys like [second baseman] Brian Dozier, the improvement he’s made as the season has gone on. And the guys in the bullpen, putting them in positions where they can be successful.”
For years, Gardenhire led active managers in ejections, but now runs second to Detroit’s Jim Leyland. He admits he’s less confrontational with umpires than he used to be, partially because he’s developed relationships with many of them and better understands their challenges.
But when strategy calls for it, Gardenhire is still willing to get tossed. Some Twins players have picked up the tab for Gardenhire’s fines, after their manager got thrown out to protect them and keep them in the game.
“Get the umpire mad at me so the player can get out of there,” Gardenhire said. “But I have calmed down quite a bit.”
‘Part of baseball life’
As soon as Ryan announced after last season that Gardenhire’s contract wouldn’t be addressed until this offseason, it appeared a challenge had been delivered: Show improvement, or be shown the door.
When the Twins failed to make a splashy move during the offseason, it looked as if Gardenhire would have a tough time leading the club to tangible improvement in the standings. The Twins headed to camp with no clear No. 1 starter in the rotation and a daily lineup sprinkled with inexperience.
“It is part of the baseball life,” Gardenhire said of his situation. “I’ll just wait and see at the end of the season. We’ll see what happens and we will go from there.”
Gardenhire won’t be judged on his record alone, Ryan said. The progress made by young players such as Dozier and rookie relievers Ryan Pressly and Caleb Thielbar could influence the decision. A wave of young talent, led by elite prospect Miguel Sano, should start to reach the majors next season. The Twins’ 2014 manager will need to prove that he can develop up-and-coming players, as Gardenhire did during his early years with the Twins.
But the past three disastrous seasons have put Gardenhire in a perilous position.
“What have we done [lately], that’s a natural thought in baseball,” Ryan said of a possible managerial change. “We have struggled. I’m the one who has given him the players. … We’ve got to have the talent for any manager or coach to succeed. But we know where we are and we have a pretty good idea of where we are going. I’m not trying to pretend that he’s got the most talented roster we have ever seen.”
Said Perkins: “He didn’t change how he manages, that’s not what has contributed to us losing here. Or changing his style or that he’s out of touch. It’s not that. [The solution is] better players. It’s more talent.”
Gardenhire says he knows he doesn’t want to manage into his late 60s, because he wants to spend time with his grandchildren. But he definitely wants to return and turn the Twins into a winner again before he departs. He said he has no health issues that would cause him to step away on his own.
“I like what I’m doing,” Gardenhire said. “I’m not ready to retire now.”
And his office still has space for more mementos, starting with that lineup card for victory No. 1,000.