MINNEAPOLIS — Torii Hunter can’t remember who the Twins were playing — or even if they won, for that matter — but there was a moment in 2002 that has stuck with Hunter to this day as he talks about his former manager and current Minnesota skipper Ron Gardenhire.
With the Twins losing by seven runs in the sixth or seventh inning, Gardenhire stood up and, out of nowhere, told what Hunter calls a “hell of a joke.” Whatever the joke was (it likely wasn’t fit to print), it got the entire Minnesota dugout laughing. Soon, Gardenhire’s team was joking around and loosening up. The Twins started to play better, too, and began to rally.
Hunter isn’t certain if Minnesota won that game, but that’s not what was important. The importance of that one joke was that it helped Gardenhire earn the respect of his team’s key players such as Hunter, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, David Ortiz and A.J. Pierzynski. That bond Gardenhire formed with his players was a sign of things to come, and a big reason why Minnesota’s skipper has 998 career wins and has a chance to reach 1,000 career wins before the 2013 season is over.
“Gardy was so much fun and somebody you want to play for and don’t want to do bad for,” said Hunter, now an outfielder with Detroit. “You want to play well for him because he was just that type of person.”
With just five games remaining in the regular season, the Twins need two more wins to help their manager reach that special milestone. Those two wins won’t come easy as Minnesota has one more game against Detroit and three with the Cleveland Indians — two teams jockeying for postseason spots.
If Gardenhire does get to 1,000 wins this season, he’ll become just the 60th manager in baseball history to do so and the second this season after Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel accomplished the feat in August — and was then fired shortly thereafter. Gardenhire hasn’t allowed himself the chance to think about that milestone, or the fact that the window in 2013 is closing quickly in order to reach it.
“I’m thinking about one win right now, I really am,” Gardenhire said prior to Monday’s win against the Tigers. “A thousand, that’s been so far out of the thought process for me. Maybe for other people. I know my family’s been talking about it. … Really, there hasn’t been much thought process. I’d like to win a ball game tonight, go out and beat these guys and then we go from there and figure out that other stuff as we get closer to it.”
But just like Hunter and other players from Gardenhire’s inaugural team in 2002, those on his current roster want to help Gardenhire get to win No. 1,000. It’s been yet another disappointing season, the third in a row of 90-plus losses. Hunter noted Minnesota’s rebuilding process — something he never experienced in Minnesota — and added that a manager can only do so much with the talent he’s given.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan, the man in charge of getting Gardenhire that talent, admits as much.
“We’ve struggled. I’m the one that’s giving him the players, and I understand that,” Ryan said. “It’s a difficult chore. We’ve got to have talent for any manager or coach to succeed. But we know where we are, and I think we’ve got a pretty good idea of where we’re going. I’m trying to take a lot of the responsibility for what’s going on with this record. I’m not pretending that he’s got the most talented roster you’ve ever seen him have.”
Still, for as tough as this season has been for Gardenhire and his players, the skipper has remained level-headed. He’s had a roster comprised mainly of young players and has done his best to be a teacher when needed while also keeping things light in the clubhouse.
“The past two or three seasons were not seasons that we expected. But at the same time you’ve got to have your leader of the team, your manager, doing what he’s doing to just, kind of in layman’s terms, to keep it sane,” said Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, in his second year with Minnesota. “It’s been one of those years again it’s not fun at all. If you have good leadership and a good coaching staff, which they have been, keeping us loose, telling us to play the game the right way and play the game hard no matter what the outcome is, hopefully these last (five) games we can get these last (two) wins.”
Gardenhire took over as Minnesota’s skipper in 2002, replacing longtime manager Tom Kelly. His first of 998 wins came on Opening Day that year as the Twins topped Kansas City 8-6. Gardenhire still has the newspaper clipping from the next day’s paper. The framed sports page celebrates his first of what would turn out to be hundreds of wins at the helm. In fact, Minnesota won 94 games in Gardenhire’s inaugural season en route to an American League Central title.
Perhaps the best team Gardenhire managed was in 2006, when a Twins team laden with talented veterans won 96 games. Still, postseason success was nonexistent as Minnesota was swept by Oakland in three games in the American League Division Series.
It’s taken Gardenhire 12 years to get within two games of 1,000 wins, whereas his predecessor, Tom Kelly, needed 15 seasons to win 1,000 games. Gardenhire was a coach for many years under Kelly’s watch prior to taking over as manager in 2002.
Before then, though, the Twins believed Gardenhire had what it took to manage at this level — even if they didn’t know he had the potential to win 1,000 games. Gardenhire was named the manager of the club’s Single-A team in Kenosha, Wis., in 1988 and led that team to an 81-59 record and a first-half division win.
“There was no doubt that he was going to become a major league manager, even back in A-ball,” Ryan said. “He just had that presence, and he had respect of players. He always seemed to win everywhere he’d ever been, regardless of his roster. That’s always a good sign.”
Gardenhire is a prime example of just how much the Twins organization prides itself on continuity. There hasn’t been much turnover in the front office or coaching staff in the last few decades; Gardenhire is just the 12th manager in team history. And of the 59 managers who do have 1,000 wins, not many can say they did so with just one organization.
The loyalty the Twins have shown Gardenhire is the same loyalty Minnesota’s players have for their manager.
“I think everyone in this clubhouse wants to get him that and wants to do it by next Sunday,” said Twins closer Glen Perkins, who has played for Gardenhire since making his debut in 2006. “I don’t think that has any bearing on what happens this winter, and it shouldn’t. Still, our goal is to get him that before the season ends.”
As Perkins alluded to, the Twins will have a decision to make in regards to Gardenhire. He’s in the last year of his contract, so the question that general manager Terry Ryan and the front office will have to make is whether to bring Gardenhire back for 2014 or let someone else lead the rebuilding process.
It’s hard to entirely fault Gardenhire for Minnesota’s shortcomings over the last three years, although someone may ultimately have to take the fall for three straight 90-loss seasons. A few of Gardenhire’s coaches were let go after 2012, and more changes may be in store this winter.
Might that mean Gardenhire is out the door? If so, will he reach 1,000 wins before that time comes? Only time will tell. Ryan said he doesn’t anticipate waiting too long to make any offseason hirings or firings, so Gardehire’s fate could be decided in the near future.
If it were up to those who play for him — or have ever played for him — they’d want Gardenhire back in a Twins uniform in 2014.
“Unfortunately, Gardenhire’s going to get the bulk of it and the worst part of it, which is not right,” Hunter said. “I think he’s the best man for the job. He’s such a player’s manager, it’s unbelievable.”