It’s going to take some tough love to turn around the Twins, Terry Ryan concluded last week, difficult decisions that hurt in order to heal. Ryan made a big one on Monday.
“I feel like he’s my brother, not my manager,” Ryan said of Ron Gardenhire, his colleague for three decades who nevertheless was told on Monday that his services are no longer needed in the Target Field dugout. “This is a tough day.”
It was Ryan’s own doing, however, his recommendation to owner Jim Pohlad and team President Dave St. Peter that Gardenhire be fired after 13 years of writing lineups and haranguing umpires, and with a year left on his contract. Had Ryan advised sticking with Gardenhire, as he did a year ago, despite four consecutive seasons with 92 losses or more, Pohlad would have gone along with it, the owner said, fan outrage be damned.
But the general manager wanted change.
“Was I surprised?” Pohlad said. “Terry is as frustrated about four losing seasons as anybody. He’s committed to trying anything that will bring winning back.”
Even if it means making Gardenhire the first Twins manager to be fired since 1986, a verdict that Ryan found validated by a surprising ally: Gardenhire himself.
“I told Terry today that I think this is the right thing,” Gardenhire said, exiting gracefully after 27 years in the Twins organization, and 1,068 wins as the team’s manager. “I’ve been here a long time. Sometimes people need to hear a different voice, and I have no problem with that.”
Neither did the people in charge, though “he’s beloved by [the Pohlad family], and I’ll always remember him as a winner,” the owner said. And neither, undoubtedly, did the ticket buyers who no longer do, and the TV viewers who have tuned out, and the social-media critics who made #FireGardy a season-long meme. Fox Sports North ratings have declined by half since the losing began, and attendance has dropped by nearly a third, from an average of 39,112 per game in 2011 to 27,785 this past season.
None of that made any difference, the Twins’ top officials all insist, not the unsold tickets, unserved hot dogs or disenchanted sponsors. No sense looking for any hidden motivation or camouflaged reasons for firing Gardenhire and leaving his seven coaches’ fate in the hands of his successor, Ryan said. It couldn’t be simpler.
“We haven’t won enough games,” Ryan said. “It’s nothing more, nothing less than that.”
‘Shocking’ to Mauer
Of course, Ryan stuck by Tom Kelly when the Twins were in a similar cycle of defeat in the late 1990s. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Ryan was prepared to reaffirm his faith in stability yet again, even as the Twins limped to a 70-92 finish. He said as much on the record in August, then backtracked the next day when he realized he hadn’t properly considered the decision nor consulted his bosses.
Ryan’s health was an issue, too, following a bout with squamous-cell cancer last spring. But last week, his doctor advised him that there are no physical reasons he cannot continue as general manager: “Go at it,” he told Ryan, full speed.
And that, the GM said, is when he seriously evaluated Gardenhire’s prospects for turning the team’s fortunes around quickly, and came to his difficult decision.
“We just weren’t playing well, that’s exactly the reason,” Ryan said. “We didn’t have a good month.”
No, and they haven’t in a while. But there were plenty of them in those first nine seasons, including six AL Central championships, a couple of MVPs and a pair of Cy Young seasons, and a long postseason run in ... well, OK, Gardenhire admitted, “We didn’t play well in the playoffs, and that’s on my record. I would have loved to win a World Series. But we got to the playoffs. You’ve got to live that part of it, too.”
True, and so his 6-21 postseason record is more a footnote than a legacy. Meanwhile, he became the popular face of his franchise, an Oklahoma transplant gregarious with fans and the press, entertainingly demonstrative with umpires (who ejected him 73 times) and “as connected to this community as any manager in this town has ever been,” St. Peter said.
And he was popular with his players, too.
“It’s just shocking. It’s going to be hard not to see him there next year in spring training,” said Joe Mauer, who blossomed into a six-time All-Star and signed a $184 million contract under his only big-league manager. “I learned a lot from the guy, how to play the game the right way. How to be a professional, how to be a big-leaguer. I’m very appreciative of the things he’s taught me.”
The search begins
So who will Mauer’s second big-league manager be? Ryan said he has no list in his mind, no candidates lined up. He’ll consider the team’s coaches, who are in limbo until a manager is hired and decides who to keep; Terry Steinbach and Paul Molitor have been mentioned as managerial prospects. He’ll consider minor league coaches, perhaps ex-Twin Doug Mientkiewicz, who just led Fort Myers to a Class A championship; Ryan cited Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa as unknown minor league managers who succeeded in the majors. He’ll consider Hispanic candidates, given the team’s recent influx of players from Spanish-speaking countries. He’ll consider experienced vets, but also young newcomers, pointing out that inexperienced-when-hired managers like Mike Matheny and Brad Ausmus are leading playoff teams.
He will consider longtime Twins insiders, and candidates that he’s never met.
“He’s got to be a strategy guy. I’d like to have him be an attention-to-detail guy. He’s got to be a leader, a tactician, handle the media, be involved in the community, take an interest in our minor leagues and in scouting and so forth, have a grasp of the organizational policies,” Ryan said of the new hire. “I don’t care if he’s a veteran guy or a young guy, as long as he’s a quality guy.”
Ryan couldn’t say how long the process will take. Nor could Gardenhire say what’s next for him. Ryan offered an undetermined job in the organization, but Gardenhire figures to be in demand for another job — Arizona and Texas are currently open — and he’d take one, he said. “I’m not burned out at all. I still love going to the ballpark,” said Gardenhire, who turns 57 next month. “I’m not done managing, I don’t think. Right now, I just want to take some time to step back and think.”
Besides, he’s got bigger priorities now than Oswaldo Arcia’s strikeouts and Glen Perkins’ elbow.
“I’m going to be a grandpa pretty soon,” Gardenhire said. “I can’t wait.”