CLEVELAND – One batter into Ron Gardenhire’s managing career, he already owned a 1-0 lead, and a reason to trust his own instincts. Twelve years and four days later, he still does — and those instincts have placed him in some hallowed company.
Brian Dozier led off Saturday’s game with a home run, just as Jacque Jones did in Gardenhire’s managerial debut in 2002, and the Twins soaked their fiery leader with beer after rolling to a 7-3 victory over the Indians at Progressive Field that made him the 60th manager in major league history to win 1,000 games.
“So many people [are responsible], you’d love to be able to thank them all,” Gardenhire said after a brief but raucous clubhouse celebration. "Now we can move forward and get another 92 this year and be in the playoffs.”
OK, that’s not what most observers expect out of his team this year, but that’s the sort of optimism and determination that have made Gardenhire one of the most successful managers in the game, a popular figure with his players, and a fixture in the Twin Cities for more than two decades. He now also ranks with the likes of Earl Weaver, Tommy Lasorda and his own predecessor and mentor, Tom Kelly, as one of 10 managers whose 1,000 victories were achieved with only one team.
“I’ve been lucky to see a lot of them, to be a part of those wins, so you take a lot of pride in that as a player,” said Joe Mauer, who has never played for any other big-league manager. “To hold that position for all those years, to have all those good teams, it’s a tough thing to do. It’s definitely a milestone we should celebrate.”
And so they did, once Trevor Plouffe recorded the final out by tagging Asdrubal Cabrera near third base. Gardenhire hugged his coaches, two of whom — pitching coach Rick Anderson and first-base coach Scott Ullger — have been on his staff for all 13 seasons, waved to his wife in the stands and to the umpires, and then hugged each player as he walked off the field.
Once in the clubhouse, the players donned T-shirts reading “1000 wins, 67 ejections … and still counting.” Assistant general manager Rob Antony presented the manager with a magnum of Dom Perignon from the team. “They could have put a big ol’ Bud Light in there and I’d been happy,” Gardenhire joked. “But I’ll take that.”
Oh, he got the beer. Dozier stepped forward to offer a toast on behalf of the players — one that ended with the entire roster pouring their beverages on their skipper’s gray-haired head.
“Just having a guy like Gardy, a players’ coach who teaches the game the right way, that we all love, who’s been around the game so long, it’s pretty special,” said Dozier, whose first-inning home run helped the Twins shrug off Friday night’s meltdown loss. As that home run, Dozier’s first of the season, cleared the left-field wall, the parallel with Jones’ blast in 2002 “popped right through my mind. As soon as he hit it, I started laughing,” Gardenhire said. “ ‘Here we go, boys!’ It was a good way to start it.”
Was Dozier aware of the eerie parallel? “That’s why I hit it,” he deadpanned.
Actually, Jones’ home run was representative of the my-way style that Gardenhire has practiced since he was promoted to the job upon Kelly’s retirement, a style that drove the Twins to six division titles in a decade. “Everybody thought I was nuts for letting Jacque Jones hit leadoff, because he didn’t have a good on-base percentage. But he could make it 1-0,” Gardenhire said. “That was my argument. And he did it.”
Faith like that in his players still resonates; two of Saturday’s runs were driven in by Jason Kubel, a reclamation project whom Gardenhire insisted upon giving a second chance.
Kyle Gibson, Saturday’s starter, said he feels it, too. He went 2-4 last year, posted a disappointing 5.63 ERA, but was given a chance to earn a starter’s spot once more this spring. So when his first start arrived with Gardenhire sitting on 999 wins, “I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, let’s get it today,’ ” Gibson said. The righthander lived up to his words by allowing only one run and three hits over five innings on a brutally cold day.
“It’s exciting to be the guy who’s out there for the W, but that’s Gardy’s W for sure,” he said.
Gardenhire has some L’s, too; 950 of them. And 13 of them came in the last 16 games of 2013, when the Twins were trying to trigger this celebration before shutting down for the winter. It didn’t happen, and the players worried that the Twins would change managers in the wake of their 96-loss season.
“We had a bad month of September, but they brought him back, which we all love,” Dozier said.
And even if the team doesn’t live up to his playoff expectations, Mauer said he’s still the right man for the job.
“If you have a bad day, come back to the ballpark and try to right it,” Mauer said he learned from his manager. “We knew it was going to happen eventually, but to get these wins here early in the season, on the road — [it means] we’re playing pretty good baseball.”
As they have 1,000 times now.