FORT MYERS, FLA. - When Ron Gardenhire became a Twins coach in 1991, he drove an old two-wheel drive Ford pickup, hung out with guys nicknamed Walleye and Spike, filled his days with fishing, bowling and golf, and drank his share of beer.
The pressures of managing in the big leagues, combined with occasional health concerns, have changed him. Now Gardenhire drives a new four-wheel drive Ford pickup, hangs out with guys nicknamed Walleye and Spike, fills his days with fishing, bowling and golf, and mixes in an occasional glass of red wine.
"I just went through all my health tests," Gardenhire said the other day. "My triglycerides were high. I don't know why -- they said it was something to do with beer."
Gardenhire's laugh filled his spartan office at Hammond Stadium. His pitching coach, Rick Anderson, joined in, and this relaxed jocularity in itself is unusual in the world of pro sports.
Managing a baseball team is a humbling experience in the age of instant opinion, and Gardenhire is coming off a series of trying events.
It is thus remarkable how little Gardenhire and his staff have changed since, in his first spring on the job, he coaxed David Ortiz into hitting an exploding golf ball over on Field 5.
So when Gardenhire turned surly for a week last spring, people noticed. Asked about that this week, Gardenhire pointed to the only picture on his office walls, a portrait of Kirby Puckett reading "In memoriam, 1960-2006."That knocked me back quite a bit," Gardenhire said of Puckett's death. "You look at guys who get you through tough times. When I first got the job here, he really made it easy on me. I know that was devastating to a lot of people, but it really hit me.
"It just didn't seem like it was real, that he was gone."
After that depressing beginning, Gardenhire turned in his finest work as a manager, taking the Twins from 12 ½ games out to a division title.
Then came the playoff loss to Oakland, which paled in comparison to an unwanted family drama.
This winter, Gardenhire's daughter, Tara, was diagnosed with what Gardenhire described as a "junior form of epilepsy." They were standing in the kitchen one day when Tara involuntarily threw an object across the room.
"She's going to be on medicine the rest of her life, which is sad, but she's doing fine now. At least we know what it is and how to deal with it," Gardenhire said.
More than any other high-profile sporting figure in town, Gardenhire, who lives in Little Canada, is the neighbor who would jump-start your car or buy you a beer. Even now that he's making seven figures, he slogs through the same winter gunk as the rest of us, raises his kids, bowls with the same group of friends in the same league, and scoots all over the state, wearing jeans and a fleece pullover, making promotional appearances.
"There are times when I say, 'Don't you ever just take a day off?' " Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "It has been very valuable for us that our managers over the last 20 years -- Tom Kelly and Gardy -- have lived in town and been willing to act as the face of this franchise."
Gardenhire admits he's had to change one aspect of his life -- his willingness to internalize every loss, which has kept the Twins doctors busy monitoring his health the past five years.
"What they've helped me understand is that when you're under stress, your body weakens a bit," he said. "I feel like I've taken control of my stress level now. I've learned to relax. I don't beat myself up like I did before. I don't stay up all night.
"I didn't kill myself over losing in the playoffs last year. I was upset about it, but I didn't let it ruin every day like I did when we lost to the Yankees. That ate me up all winter long."
Now he spends his winters, as former Twins catcher Terry Steinbach put it, being a "barroom Olympian," a guy who can beat you in darts, fishing, golf or bowling.