MINNEAPOLIS — Ask any member of last year’s Minnesota Twins team about the reasons for their struggles, and none of them will point fingers at manager Ron Gardenhire.
They know the blame falls completely on themselves.
"You either have talent or you don’t," said Twins closer Glen Perkins. "I think managers can do things to help good teams win more games, but a manager’s not going to take the team we had and the talent we had and do anything with it. It’s not going to happen. That’s not his fault."
So while Twins fans may have felt that someone — possibly Gardenhire — deserved to take the fall for Minnesota’s third straight season of 90 or more losses, the players disagreed. So, too, did the Twins’ front office, as they announced shortly after the season ended that Gardenhire would have his contract extended for two years through the 2015 season.
In the weeks leading up to the 2013 finale, Gardenhire was uncertain about his future in baseball and in Minnesota. He was asked constantly about his job status and whether he worried about it. His players were also questioned about Gardenhire’s future with the club.
On the day before the end of the season, general manager Terry Ryan told Gardenhire that he would be back. The man who has managed this team since 2002 could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
"He told me Saturday night — Sunday was the last day of the season — he walked in and said, "Get some sleep tonight, I’m going to give you a two-year deal,’" Gardenhire said last month at TwinsFest. "That’s when I knew that I was going to be back. All up to that point — he had told me even in Toronto, "Haven’t made a decision yet, I’m still thinking about it.’ I told him, "You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.’"
As Minnesota tries to right the ship following three straight disappointing seasons, the Twins players believe Gardenhire is the right man for the job. He’s had success with this organization, helping guide Minnesota to six American League Central titles, beginning with his first season as manager in 2002. Of course, much of that had to do with the players he had on the roster — just like the recent struggles were in part a product of the players he didn’t have at his disposal.
Having Gardenhire back in the mix for two more seasons played at least some role in helping the Twins sign free agents Jason Kubel and Jason Bartlett, both of whom played for the manager before leaving for other teams. That familiarity not only with the organization but with Gardenhire was key for both, they said.
"He’s great. I’ve only played for a few managers, but he’s the best," said Kubel, who previously played for Gardenhire from 2004-11 before spending time with Arizona and Cleveland. "I wasn’t worried about him leaving. He’s too good to just let him go. I think we’ve got the pieces around to help him out and make him look a little better, too."
During his long tenure in Minnesota, Gardenhire has developed a reputation as a players’ manager and someone for whom the players on the roster enjoy playing. A former major leaguer — as what he likes to refer to as a "futility infielder" with the New York Mets — Gardenhire has been in the game a long time. He’s been with the Twins organization since the end of his playing days when he was traded in 1986 and spent the 1987 season at Triple-A Portland. From there he eventually joined Minnesota’s coaching staff and has remained a part of one of the most loyal organizations in Major League Baseball.
For those reasons, it was hard for many Twins to picture life without Ron Gardenhire. As his team reports to spring training next week in Fort Myers, Fla., Gardenhire’s familiar face will be there to greet each and every one of them.
The players wouldn’t have it any other way. Now they want to do whatever they can to turn Gardenhire into a winner once again.
"We all agreed, we wanted him back," Perkins said. "We didn’t need to start over. We just needed some more talent. It wasn’t coaching staff, it wasn’t manager. It wasn’t anything like that. It was just we needed better players."
After Minnesota’s front office made several free agent signings this offseason, the Twins made it clear they intended to get better players for Gardenhire to work with. They addressed the team’s biggest weakness — starting pitching — by signing pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, and they brought back veteran Mike Pelfrey. Minnesota also signed free agent catcher Kurt Suzuki as another veteran addition to the roster.
Gardenhire finished the 2013 season just two wins shy of 1,000 for his career and enters 2014 with a 998-947 record. The hope last year was that the Twins would help him reach that milestone before season’s end. When questions of his future arose late in the year, there was wonder as to whether he’d ever get a chance at win No. 1,000.
Now that he’s back for two more seasons, the Twins hope to get him to that mark quickly — and to keep adding to his win total.
"Hopefully we’ll spend that (second) game getting him his 1,000th right away," said reliever Brian Duensing. "I felt bad about that. I felt like we should have been able to do that last year. We didn’t quite pull it out for him, but I’m glad he’s back. I’m glad he’s going to be able to get it as a Twins manager."