By awarding him a new two-year contract Monday, the Twins demonstrated their unwavering faith in one man — one conspicuous, charismatic, old-school, occasionally grumpy baseball lifer — to rescue their increasingly hapless team. But it’s the executive who tendered the contract, not the manager who signed it, whose power was validated by the controversial decision.
Ron Gardenhire survived the Twins’ third consecutive dismal season and, along with his entire coaching staff, will return to the dugout for a 13th season in 2014. And while the team’s principal owner and president were consulted about the choice, certain to be unpopular among a vocal portion of the fanbase impatient for change, it was clear the real vote of confidence was reserved not for Gardenhire, but for General Manager Terry Ryan.
“Terry’s recommendation was to move forward with Ron Gardenhire, and [owner] Jim Pohlad and I accepted that and supported it,” team President Dave St. Peter said. “We put a great deal of respect and, frankly, trust in Terry’s approach. … Today, if anything, maybe it’s a referendum on Terry. I can tell you, we’re very pro-TR.”
And Ryan is very pro-Gardenhire, or at least, pro-continuity. His manager has held his job since 2002, won six AL Central championships in his first nine seasons, and was not, Ryan decided, culpable for 99, 96 and 96 losses the past three seasons. Or at least, Ryan saw no advantage to changing, though he admitted many, perhaps most, franchises might have. By coincidence, the Chicago Cubs — who finished 2013 with an identical 66-96 record to the Twins’ — fired Dale Sveum, their manager for only two seasons, a few hours before the Twins’ announcement.
That sort of change in direction didn’t appeal to Ryan, under whose leadership the Twins have had only two managers in the past 27 seasons. Ryan, who revealed his decision to Gardenhire on Saturday, cited practical reasons for it — Gardenhire knows the team, its ballpark, the minor league system, the scouting staff and the demands of the job — and also philosophical ones.
“I have beliefs and values and thoughts. I’m not going to do something to get out of my beliefs,” Ryan said, making it clear that stability is one of them. “We’ve been here 30 years, for gosh sakes. Gardy’s been here 30 years, I’ve been here for 30 years. Maybe people think we’re stale. I don’t think we’re stale.”
No, “comfortable” was the word Gardenhire chose, and the reason that, after hearing his name mentioned as a potential candidate in other dugouts, he never was tempted to abandon this listing ship.
“It was a no-brainer for me, a pretty easy thing. I love it here. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” said Gardenhire, who fell two victories short of his 1,000th career win when the Twins lost 10 of their final 11 games. “I know there was a lot of talk about other ballclubs. This is where I’m comfortable.”
An angry fanbase
A segment of Twins fandom is no longer comfortable with him, however, not after 291 losses in three years, and St. Peter said he already had heard from dissenters via e-mail and Twitter.
“I’ve always been a believer that a baseball decision made for public-relations reasons is a recipe for disaster,” St. Peter said. “Some [fans are] angry with the Twins, and people want a scapegoat. But we believe organizationally — and I think most Minnesotans would agree — Ron Gardenhire isn’t the problem. We’ve got to get better players.”
That’s what Gardenhire wants, too. This season was a terrible one, with the worst starting pitching in the majors, and an offense that shattered franchise records for futility at the plate.
“I don’t know if you had put Casey Stengel in the dugout if you would have had more success this year,” said Tom Kelly, Gardenhire’s predecessor and mentor, invoking the Hall of Fame Yankees manager. “There wasn’t enough starting pitching, and then you lose a Joe Mauer and a Josh Willingham [because of injuries], and you’ve got problems in your lineup, too. … There’s a lot of work to be done.”
While the team’s fans might blame a manager for losing seasons, Kelly said: “Terry has always been honest about what sort of team he gives the manager. I mean, Las Vegas had us down for what, 68 wins? Everybody understands what [Gardenhire] was working with.”
Even the players, actually.
“I’m glad they are coming back. They as a staff can only put us out there. It’s our fault as players if we don’t get the job done,” reliever Brian Duensing said. “[Pitching coach Rick Anderson] and Gardy are all I know, so I am excited they are back. I believe Andy does a great job of taking care of us in the pen, and as a whole staff.”
Roster overhaul expected
Ryan agreed enough to offer all six coaches new one-year contracts, and a seventh coach probably will be added. Ryan said replacing Tom Brunansky because of all the strikeouts wouldn’t be fair, because he has had only one year.
And replacing Anderson wouldn’t be fair because “that would be [making him] a scapegoat. I thought Andy had a pretty good year,” Ryan said. “He’s got a target on his back because our rotation struggled, but for every guy in the rotation that struggled, we had two in the bullpen who did well.”
Now he only needs the other 15-20 Twins to play well, too. And while Pohlad and St. Peter showed their trust in Ryan by sticking with Gardenhire, that’s the challenge they depend upon him for most.
Ryan will embark next month on a roster overhaul that, the team hopes, will return the Twins to respectability while the franchise awaits the arrival of their prize prospects in a couple of years. Pohlad practically even urged his general manager to spend more of the team’s money, after this year’s $80 million payroll flopped.
“We probably have to go out to the market to supplement the roster for 2014,” Pohlad said. “I think [Ryan] is enthusiastic about doing that.”
Almost as enthusiastic as his manager is about writing out a new lineup card next spring.
“The easy thing to do is to walk away. I want to stay and make it better. We can get better in a hurry,” Gardenhire vowed. “We will get better.”