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Ralph remembers first cutting Gardenhire's hair when "he was just a little bitty thing. Ronnie couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old at the time. He was a terrific kid right from the get-go. My wife used to haul Ronnie around and I swear she just fell in love with that boy."
Ralph Jr. played on the Collier's Hardware Little League team with Gardenhire--Ron was the shortstop and Ralph Jr. was at third. When Gardenhire would pitch, Ralph would move over to short. Even as a kid, the Kovariks remember, Gardy was a funny, low-key character who was a ferocious competitor.
"Everybody always loved Ronnie," Roger said. "He was about as far from a jerk as you could get. I don't think I've ever heard him say a negative word about anybody. He was a cutup, but he didn't have a mean bone in his body. But if he was going against you on a ball field you never saw somebody so determined to find a way to beat your butt."
When they get a chance, the Kovariks will road trip to Kansas City or Texas to watch the Twins play and catch up with their old friend. Before this season they'd become a little gun-shy, however; every time they made the trek to see Gardenhire manage, Minnesota had lost. Then, during the off-season, the Kovariks extracted a guarantee from the Twins skipper, scrawled on a photograph taken in the barber shop: "To Ralph, Ralph Jr., and Roger: We will win this year when you come to a game."
"That's one thing you can for sure say about Ronnie," Roger deadpanned. "He's a man of his word." The proof is right there on the wall beneath the signed photo: two ticket stubs from Kansas City this year, with the scores of the games--"Twins 4, Royals 2" and "Twins 8, Royals 3"--written beneath them.
It's going to take an entirely different sort of guarantee--or at least some much more impressive victories--to get Donna Craddock back in the stands for one of her brother's ballgames. The last time she went to a Major League game was 22 years ago in St. Louis, when Ron was playing for the Mets. She made the trip with her younger brother, Allen, and one of her kids, only to arrive at Busch Stadium to discover that Ron had been dispatched back to New York for the birth of his son, Toby. "So much for that," she said. "I haven't been back since. I tell him now I'm holding out for a World Series game."
It seems almost like ancient history now, but when Gardenhire was named to replace the recently retired Tom Kelly as Twins manager following the 2001 season, the organization was coming off its first winning season in nine years and was holding its breath as Major League baseball decided how to address the contraction issue. Gardenhire wasn't exactly an unknown commodity--he'd been a coach with the big league club since 1991--but he wasn't a particularly high-profile candidate, either. Paul Molitor, the early speculative favorite, dropped out of the running, and other names--most notably Yankee coach Willie Randolph--were bandied about before the Minnesota front office settled on Gardenhire, a guy who had managed teams to first-place finishes in all three of his seasons in the club's minor league system.
Initially, at least, it seemed like Gardenhire was facing some seriously long odds. He was inheriting a potentially doomed team that had enjoyed a modestly successful season the previous year, and was replacing a guy who had managed the franchise to its only world championships, and who had become in his over 15 years at the helm a fixture in the organization. Early in Gardenhire's first season there was private grumbling among some members of the press and more public grumbling in all the usual fan forums that Gardenhire was in over his head.
I started getting regular e-mails from zealous fans, taking strident issue with particulars of Gardy's style, most specifically his propensity for making out rather unorthodox lineup cards (i.e., insisting to bat Jacque Jones, he of the .332 career on-base percentage, in the leadoff position), his use of the bullpen, and his perceived over-reliance on stock game strategies that seemed to have a negligible payoff, like the sacrifice bunt. And there was some truth to some of those criticisms; or, rather, I tended to share some of them. The Twins nonetheless found a way to win in 2002, and at the time I wrote some modest tribute to Gardenhire, basically extending props for doing things his way. Nothing I've ever written has generated more hostile e-mail; you'd think I had just gone out of my way to offer faint praise to the manager of a team that had lost 100 games.
In 2003 the carping somehow managed to get even louder, spurned in large part by the Twins' first-half fold that left them in a huge hole entering the All-Star break. And, again, I was doing some of that carping myself. Why the hell wasn't Johan Santana in the starting rotation? And what was it going to take for Bobby Kielty to earn a place in the outfield? The Twins' core players weren't making any progress. Yadda yadda yadda. Again, the Twins, and Gardenhire, found a way to win, and again there were plenty of people who continued to insist that it was despite Gardenhire rather than because of him.
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