Tom Kelly doesn't remember exactly which February it was, but it was definitely in the late 1990s, during the Twins' streak of four consecutive 90-loss seasons. Those failed seasons sort of blur together — "I'd like to forget a couple of them," the longtime Twins manager jokes — but he recalls distinctly the preseason summons he and General Manager Terry Ryan received from team owner Carl Pohlad.
"Mr. Pohlad wanted Terry and I to come to his office and discuss where we're at with the team," Kelly said, but his contract was running out and he didn't know what to expect. A scolding? Orders to make drastic changes? Or maybe he was about to be fired?
None of the above, as it turns out. "Mr. Pohlad called us in and said he wanted me to stay on and get us through this rough period he believed we were going to have," Kelly said. "So he understood what we had. We were all on the same page about what to expect that year. And that's so important to a manager."
Now another Twins manager is trying to pull his team together through a fallow period, but it's not clear at all that the franchise, and Pohlad's descendants, intends to be as patient with Ron Gardenhire as it was with his predecessor. After the team suffered 195 losses over two seasons, the manager's contract for 2013 was not extended last winter beyond this season, and even the second-winningest manager in team history realizes he might be fighting for his job this season.
"I'm OK with that. I don't have a problem with that at all," said Gardenhire, the second-longest-tenured manager in the game right now, behind the Angels' Mike Scioscia. "You know what, when you have seasons like the ones we've had, you should be accountable. So I'll go about my business, getting this team ready to play to the best of my ability, and I'll leave the other stuff to the people in charge of that."
It has become as difficult to imagine the Internet-age Twins without Gardenhire as it was to picture anyone but Kelly in charge at the turn of the century. But Gardenhire seems to sense that he might not survive a third disastrous season, that he might even be vulnerable to a poor start to the season. "I understand all that. It's the nature of the business I'm in," he said. "It's been a great run. I've got no complaints. Whatever happens, I'll be fine."
His tenure has been mostly fine, too. There are plenty of reasons, Kelly says, that the goateed Oklahoman has thrived so long in Minnesota.
Three of them, Kelly says, are Gardenhire's children. Roughly the same age as his players, Gardenhire's son, Toby, and daughters Tiffany and Tara allow him to better understand how to lead young people in a short-attention-span age. "The culture has changed, in baseball and outside it, and he's adapted very well," Kelly said. "He's got young-adult kids, and that really helps him recognize the culture, the social media, all those things. He pretends [ignorance], but he knows what's going on."
Gardenhire has charisma that makes him popular with the public and helpful to the media, and an understanding that image is part of the job, said Ryan, now in his second stint as general manager. Acceptance in the clubhouse is even more important, Ryan said, and Gardenhire always has achieved that through empathy, stemming from his own relative lack of success as a Mets infielder in the 1980s.
"He struggled as a player, and so he knows how difficult this game can be," Ryan said. "He is a decisive leader but someone who has a tremendous amount of patience, and the players appreciate that."
It was easier for Minnesota's fan base to appreciate Gardenhire during his six Central Division titles, but his players don't seem to have deserted him. "Gardy has been great because he keeps it light in [the clubhouse], so the stress doesn't get too high," said first baseman Justin Morneau, whose entire 10-year career has been spent playing for Gardenhire. "But he's all business when he needs to be. As long as you take your responsibility seriously, he's got your back, and the players respect that."
But two horrible seasons have taken a toll, Gardenhire said. "Going into a ballgame, when you feel like you have a chance to win a game, that's fun. During the game, competing is fun," he said. "But losing is not fun. It's hard. ... I don't think anybody is happy about it."