The gait still looks the same. Ron Gardenhire doesn’t so much walk as he stalks when he’s on a baseball field. He’s impossible to misidentify from 100 yards away because of his unmistakable foot patrol.
Gardy 2.0 looks quite different in appearance though, healthy and trim, having shed 40 pounds since his time as Twins manager.
“I’m making way less than I was making with the Twins,” he said. “I don’t have as much money, so I can’t eat as much.”
New organization, new perspective after a health scare, but same old Gardy.
“Believe it or not, [the weight] came off pretty easy,” he said. “Because I was so stinking fat.”
Gardenhire held court in the visitor’s dugout at Target Field on Monday, which felt a little surreal for a man who gave 27 years of his life to the Twins, the last 13 as manager before being fired in 2014 following a fourth consecutive season of 90-plus losses.
The Detroit Tigers hired Gardenhire in October to oversee a rebuilding project, a challenge he knows well from his days in Minnesota. If stress is unavoidable with a team that figures to lose a lot of games, Gardenhire doesn’t display it outwardly.
“It’s fun in the dugout,” he said. “A lot of hooting and hollering. I don’t understand a lot of what’s said but it’s still entertainment to me.”
He’s even the one being pranked now.
Gardenhire admits he lacked deep organizational knowledge of the Tigers system when he got the job. He held a team meeting at the start of spring training and told his players that if he calls them “buddy” it’s because he doesn’t know their name yet. The next day three players took the field with “Buddy” inscribed on the back of their uniforms.
Baseball humor is in Gardy’s wheelhouse but starting over with a new organization at age 60 isn’t easy.
“It was a whole different experience,” he said. “I said, ‘I’ve got this. I can do this.’ I just have to get my mind in the right direction.”
Managing again didn’t consume him, he said, even as he returned to the dugout as bench coach with Arizona Diamondbacks last season. Prostate cancer put him in a “club” with other survivors but couldn’t steer him into retirement. Baseball lifers don’t change their stripes.
“It’s all I’ve ever done,” he said.
When Gardenhire returned to Target Field last season with the Diamondbacks, he arrived early enough for hijinks. He went into the Twins clubhouse and scattered some coaches’ shirts on the floor. On Monday, he stopped in briefly to say hello to old friends after parking in the players’ lot at the team’s invitation.
Early batting practice gave him a chance to catch-up with his former players and coaches. Everyone received a handshake and hug. Gardy even retrieved a few baseballs along the outfield wall during the Twins early hitting session. Old habits, apparently.
“It’s always going to be in your history and in your blood,” he said. “I love this place. This organization showed me as much as respect as you could get as a coach, player and manager.”
He put his old gang back together in Detroit. Former Twins coaches Joe Vavra, Rick Anderson and Steve Liddle are on his staff again. Vavra said Gardenhire’s approach fits perfectly with an organization in transition.
“There’s not a lot of negative from Gardy,” he said. “You’re hearing constant enthusiasm and constant teaching.”
Baseball has evolved with the proliferation of analytics and defensive shifts. Gardenhire called the Tigers’ application of analytics a “work in progress.”
“I get lineups from them every day on who I should play and everything,” he said, setting up his punchline. “And then I have to send things back saying, ‘He’s on the DL. I can’t play him.’ ”
He was joking. Old-school Gardy humor.
Former Twins GM Terry Ryan called Gardenhire “just a good baseball man” on the day he fired him. Nobody argued that change wasn't needed. Gardenhire hadn’t become a bad manager. His tenure had simply run its course.
He’s older now, a cancer survivor and a grandpa. One thing hasn’t changed. Gardy 2.0 remains just a good baseball man.