There is a myth that the Pohlad family is incapable of change when it comes to operating the Twins. This piece of conventional wisdom suggests that this trait for inaction was passed down from the patriarch, Carl Pohlad, to his sons: team CEO Jim and board members Bob and Bill.
The facts are that Carl Pohlad took control of the Twins on Sept. 7, 1984, and within two years, he had fired two managers: Billy Gardner and Ray Miller.
The changes would have continued, if Carl Pohlad had followed his instinct and hired Jim Frey, then 56, as the next manager, rather than Tom Kelly, then 36 and the interim for the final 23 games of 1986.
Andy MacPhail, the rising young man in the Twins front office, convinced Pohlad to go with Kelly, and that was the start of this astounding run of stability.
Kelly won a World Series in his first season, and another in 1991, and that proved managerial talent and begat loyalty from ownership. After 15 seasons, Kelly stepped down, and Ron Gardenhire, 44, was promoted from third base coach and first lieutenant.
Gardenhire had five 90-win seasons, eight winning seasons and six division titles in his first nine years, and that proved managerial talent and begat loyalty from ownership.
The Pohlads did not go from Sept. 12, 1986, to Monday without firing a manager because of indifference or misplaced loyalty, but rather because they hired back-to-back baseball men who were young at the start and quickly proved to be excellent at the job.
Kelly survived four losing seasons (1993-96) when the Twins still were trying, and four more (1997-2000) where the budget was slashed and a competent manager was probably the team’s No. 1 asset.
Gardenhire made it through four losing seasons (2011-14), but these are different times in a different ballpark, and the owners could not continue to be perceived as bystanders putting up with seasons where 96 losses was the average.
This was the second dramatic baseball move approved by the Pohlads in three years: Bill Smith was fired as general manager after the 99-loss disaster of 2011, and Gardenhire took the tumble Monday (with a going-away present of $2 million-plus for 2015).
Gardenhire is both the second longest-tenured and second-best manager in the Twins’ 54-year history. There’s a tendency to downplay all that success from 2002 to 2010, because of Gardy’s 6-21 playoff record and a 12-game losing streak that continues.
The fact is, the act of winning six division titles from 2002 through 2010 meant that Gardenhire had his team in baseball’s final eight. That’s the equivalent of getting through the first round 67 percent of the time in nine seasons of NHL, NBA and NFL playoff competition. There also was the long-ago trip to the World Series tournament semis in 2002.
Anyone diminishing what Gardenhire achieved in that decade has ignored how bad things were from 1993 to 2000, and that we weren’t really sure if the 85-77 record in 2001 (Kelly’s final season) was a blip or a turnaround.
“When we started coming to the big leagues in the late ’90s, Gardy was our third base coach, but more than that he was our sounding board,” then-first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. “Tom Kelly would let us know what he wanted, and Gardy would make sure that we understood … make it easier for us.
“We spent more time with Gardy, and we got to know him better. When TK stepped aside, Gardy was the one person to make it a smooth transition. And the clubhouse was a lot looser than it was with Tom.”
There were two reasons for this: A) Gardenhire was more gregarious by nature than Kelly: and B) Mientkiewicz and Co. were losing 90-plus games at first with Kelly, and wondering if they were truly big-leaguers.
Mientkiewicz, now the Twins’ manager at Class A Fort Myers, was asked if that first wave of turnaround Twins were Gardy’s guys, as Hrbek, Gaetti, etc. were Kelly’s guys in 1987?
“No, we were ‘Twins guys,” Mientkiewicz said. “TK started that, and Gardy really pushed that on us, and it worked for a long time. This is a sad day for those of us who admire Gardy, and whoever comes in, we have to get back to that with these players now reaching the big leagues:
“ ‘You’re Twins guys. You’re in this together.’ ”