LAKELAND, FLA. – Spring training brings an atmosphere that invigorates a baseball man and leads to good humor. This was particularly true with Ron Gardenhire, who made his post-workout interview sessions a highlight of Florida visits for Twin Cities sportswriters.
Gardy had this responsibility for 13 seasons as the Twins manager, and one gentle, oft-repeated quip came when he was asked if a lefthanded reliever with a weight problem was “in shape.”
The manager hesitated an instant and said: “He’s in a shape.”
Gardenhire won six division titles in his first nine seasons (2002-10) with the Twins, and then was fired after four seasons of 90-plus losses (2011-14). He spent 2015 out of baseball, worked as a special assignment instructor for the Twins in 2016, and was Torey Lovullo’s bench coach in Arizona in 2017.
The Diamondbacks were surprising wild-card entries, beating Colorado in that game, before being swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series. The season was over and Gardenhire and his wife, Carol, had two vehicles to get across the country to their home in Fort Myers, Fla.
“We would drive for a while, and then stop,” Gardenhire said. “I finally said: ‘I think this was it. I’m going to call Torey and say it was great, but I’m going to spend time with the grandbabies.’
“Then, we were driving some more, and my cellphone started to go off. The Red Sox wanted to talk to me, the Tigers wanted to talk.
“Next time we stopped, I said, ‘What do you think?’ and Carol said: ‘You want to do it again. Go for it.’ ”
Gardenhire had dinner with Tigers baseball boss Al Avila and a group including Al Kaline and Alan Trammell. He was impressed. So were they.
The announcement was made on Oct. 20. And four months later, we are in the earliest days of baseball’s version of spring, and the Detroit media is being introduced to the post-workout Gardy.
On Friday, a reporter was asking about Travis Wood, a veteran lefty brought in on a minor league deal. Wood showed up this week and revealed a mangled index finger on his non-throwing right hand.
He did this in a crossbow accident, but Friday, a reporter told Gardenhire that Wood said he was willing to have part of the finger removed if it allowed him to pitch sooner.
“No, no … let’s go ahead and keep the finger,” Gardenhire said. “I appreciate his valor, if that’s the word … although in Oklahoma we’d call it something else. Stupid.”
Gardenhire turned 60 four days after he was announced as Tigers manager. His weight is down, his blood pressure is down, he has gone through prostate cancer and he looks way more energetic than the exhausted, unhealthy man that was fired by Terry Ryan on the Monday after the 2014 season ended.
“We’d won a lot of games, and then we had those bad years,” Gardenhire said. “Eating late at night in the office, having a couple of beers, then going home and not being able to sleep … it wasn’t good for me.”
Four seasons later, he has taken over a rebuilding team expected to lose 90 or more. This time, Gardy is ready for what comes, because he believes in the Tigers’ future.
Steve Liddle was fishing on Percy Priest Lake near his Tennessee home when Gardenhire called in October and asked if his original bench coach was ready to go back to work.
“Gardy had interviewed with Boston and Detroit, and he said, ‘I really like what they are trying to do in Detroit,’ ” Liddle said. “He was so excited about getting back, sounded so fired up, I said, ‘Count me in.’ ”
Liddle, Joe Vavra and Rick Anderson (pitching coach, turned bullpen coach) are Gardy’s Minnesota guys on an eight-coach staff. He also pushed for Doug Mientkiewicz for his role as the new manager of Class AAA Toledo.
“When my brother Mike, who died a decade ago, and I were kids, we listened to the 1968 World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals on a transistor radio,” Gardenhire said. “And Mike became a huge fan of Mickey Lolich. Whenever we were outside and playing whiffle ball, he had to be Lolich, pitching for the Tigers.
“There’s a lot of tradition with this baseball team. Heck, Al Kaline is here every day. Al Kaline.”