You picture each loss making his windowless office a little darker, the air a little stuffier, the gloom a little thicker. You imagine Ron Gardenhire’s inner sanctum as a bunker of blame, with each day’s failure making the diamond-mine pressure just a little more crushing. You figure his home park is more Target than Field these days, his popularity evaporating along with his job security as his shoulders bear the weight of mistakes not his own.
You might think living through 195 losses in 18 months is enough to make Ron Gardenhire swear off the Twins, managing, maybe even baseball. But you would be wrong.
“You mean, I’d rather be doing something else?” Gardenhire rephrases, as he considers a question about his mental and emotional durability in the wake of the worst back-to-back years he’s ever experienced as a player or manager. “No, I love what I’m doing — win, lose or draw.”
Well, it’s a shame there aren’t more draws, then. But Gardenhire enters his 12th season in charge of the Twins with an upbeat attitude about his team, his legacy and his future. He appears earnest about making others believe it, too. The Twins as a group, in fact, seem to reject the low expectations that devolve from two catastrophic seasons, and don’t share the pessimism about 2013 that has become consensus around the league and around the state.
“That’s what’s exciting about this game — you never know. You may think you have it figured out, but stuff happens every year that you never see coming,” Gardenhire says. “Going into a ballgame, when you feel like you have a chance to win a game, that’s fun. During the game, competing is fun. But losing is not fun.”
No, fun is probably not the right word, not for those in charge, not for those whose job performance can be assessed, out to three places beyond the decimal point, in the standings each day. Yet for the vast majority of Minnesotans, to whom the Twins are more pastime than vocation, even a 30-games-below-.500 season is not wholly without its charms.
“It’s about the experience, and the shared connection with our fans,” said team President Dave St. Peter, and sure, he’s got to say those things when the pennant race is being waged well out of earshot of the Twins. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong when he notes that “there are a lot of reasons to come out to the ballpark, or watch on TV. Target Field itself is one of the great venues in sports on a summer night. The All-Star Game coming [in 2014], the young kids starting to arrive — everybody would hope the record shows improvement this year, but we think, in a lot of ways, this is a good time to be a Twins fan.”
That notion isn’t a popular one, acknowledges General Manager Terry Ryan, but he agrees with it. The Twins lost 96 games last year, but: “We had some very good things happen, I keep saying that,” Ryan said. “It wasn’t a total disappointment. [Justin] Morneau and [Joe] Mauer being healthy, [Josh] Willingham having a good year, developing [Scott] Diamond into an effective starter. Unfortunately, it all sort of gets lost with all the losses. But we’re not starting from scratch here.”
Ryan’s words insist he’s playing for 2013, but his actions suggest he’s got a much longer timeline in mind. That juxtaposition makes sense, of course; with attendance already declining, what general manager wants to dampen enthusiasm in his fan base — not to mention his clubhouse?
“I don’t know what it would be like to think you don’t even have a chance,” Morneau said. “I can see us get getting off to a good start, get rolling a little bit, and adding a piece at the [trade] deadline.”
You have to appreciate his optimism, but the Twins’ most notable winter moves appeared to drain the team’s major league talent base, not strengthen it. Ryan subtracted center fielder Denard Span, a reliable producer at the plate, to acquire Alex Meyer, a starting pitcher who is a year or two away from reaching Minneapolis. Then he sent Ben Revere away as well, leaving center field bereft of experience, so he could add two more pitchers, including another midway-through-the-minors prospect in Trevor May.
The veteran pitchers he added via free agency — Kevin Correia for two years, Mike Pelfrey for one — could be interpreted as short-term fill-ins, not set-down-roots long-timers. Vacancies at shortstop, second base and center field — not to mention sort-of commitments at third base and right field — are being addressed by in-house solutions, rather than more expensive answers in free agency.
Yet Ryan rejects the suggestion that the 2013 Twins’ major task is simply to clear the way for a wave of young talent that is closing in on the major leagues. A successful season is one that answers the questions about Trevor Plouffe and Chris Parmelee, that trains Aaron Hicks to be a worthy successor to Torii Hunter, that solves the free-agent riddle of Morneau’s future, and that avoids cluttering the roster with spare parts and payroll overcommitments. Right, Mr. Ryan?
“We’ve got the pieces to be a contender. You look at our lineup — if everyone stays healthy, we’re going to score a lot of runs,” Ryan declares. “We’ve added some pitchers who know how to win, and we’ve got a closer in Glen Perkins that we believe can do the job. We have to win some games here. We’re trying to win right now.”
What’s weird is, Ryan has beefed up the Twins farm system so quickly, through trades, a handful of international signings, plus some high draft picks — there is one benefit to losing a lot of games, after all — that there is legitimate enthusiasm among the team’s fans about the 2016 pennant race. The Twins’ top prospects are routinely pursued by autograph-seekers at training camp, and such talents as Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton draw groups of curious fans during minor league batting practice.
So is a breakthrough really possible in 2013? Miracle turnarounds are, by definition, almost impossible to detect in advance. Even someone who has lived through one isn’t certain he would notice the signs.
“As a manager, you go in with a good understanding of where you’re at with your ballclub. You have high hopes, but you try to be realistic about how many games you can win,” said Tom Kelly, who helped turn the 74-win Twins of 1990 into the 95-win world champions of 1991. “You might be cautiously optimistic about going from last to first, but how often does it really happen? I don’t think I ever started a season thinking like that.”
Maybe not. And maybe — probably — it won’t happen this year, either.
Or maybe it will.
“I’ll tell you, when it happens, you never forget it. It’s quite a ride,” Kelly said. “All the lean years are not fun. They’re tough. It takes you for a loop. But then you get up and keep fighting. You keep pushing. Because expectations aren’t reality, they’re opinion. And how often are people’s opinions wrong?”