Okie from Okmulgee

The roots of Ron Gardenhire

 

If you talk to anyone who's ever known Gardenhire, from friends and family in Okmulgee to his present players and coaching staff, the same characterizations and contradictions pop up time and again: On the one hand, they'll say, he's an easygoing, fun-loving guy with a rare gift for gab. On the other, he's an intensely motivated, straight-talking character who hates to lose, can't abide failure, and will, in any competitive venture, somehow find a way to kick your ass.

"The way he is at the ballpark is exactly the way he is at home," Gardenhire's younger brother Allen says. "He has such amazing passion and respect for the game of baseball, and he's always expected that of the people around him. He's got this inner drive that's just unbelievable. Ronnie's really a damn good person, but, boy, I never wanted to be on the other team against him."

On the surface, people will say, Gardenhire is very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy, but as his pitching coach and longtime friend Rick Anderson points out, it's precisely what you don't see, or at least what the casual observer doesn't see, that fuels Gardenhire's drive.

To be sure, there have been glimpses of this intensity. Where Kelly always sought to play down the hard feelings that can naturally arise among division rivals, the Twins under Gardenhire have not shied away from engaging other ballclubs, most notably Chicago and Cleveland, in wars of words and actions that have produced more than a few beanings, brushbacks, and umpire warnings. And where Kelly was ejected from just 5 of the more than 2,000 games he managed, Gardy has already been given the heave-ho 15 times in 3 seasons. Most of those ejections have come from him defending his coaches and players. They are messages--or private performances--for the guys in the dugout. The guys have responded with three straight division titles.

"Gardy's a guy who genuinely enjoys what he's doing," Anderson says. "He likes to joke around and is tremendous about creating a positive atmosphere so the guys can stay loose. But don't let him fool you. This is a guy who hates to lose, and when things aren't going well I know how much it eats him alive. I think humor is his way of dealing with it, at least outwardly, but inside his stomach's churning, the wheels are always turning, and he's trying to figure out how to correct the problems and get things turned back around."

The Doug Mientkiewicz trade and the way it was handled on all sides may have sealed the deal for me on Gardenhire. Privately some of his coaches say it was immensely hard on Gardy, particularly Mientkiewicz's public criticisms after the fact. But if, in fact, as Mientkiewicz alleged, it was Gardenhire who forced the move, I'd take that as Exhibit A that Gardy has fully arrived as a manager. Gardenhire was Mientkiewicz's most vocal supporter for a very long time, but the team was scuffling to score runs and Justin Morneau was tearing up Triple-A pitching for the second year in a row. One of the more frequently valid criticisms of Gardenhire as a manager--and also, conversely, one of his most admirable traits--is his loyalty to his players and the consistently animated way in which he'll defend them. It had to be hard for Gardenhire to see so many of his players defect in the off-season, and it had to be hard to pull the trigger on the Mientkiewicz deal. But as he has done for three seasons now, Gardenhire has adjusted on the fly. The new faces--from Lew Ford to Carlos Silva to Terry Mullholland--have to a man praised him for making them feel welcome and comfortable in the Twins clubhouse. While Gardenhire might sometimes be slow to adapt, he is nonetheless always adapting--check out the rosters for each of the last three division champions and see how much consistency Gardenhire's had to work with.

Anderson and Gardenhire have a long history together, and have been pretty much joined at the hip since they were minor league teammates in the Mets system.

"One summer we were in Double A together in Jackson, Mississippi," Anderson remembers. "Gardy and I were both married, and at the time we were making about $800 a month. We couldn't afford our own places and Ron was looking for somebody to share a two-bedroom apartment with him and his wife. We moved in there with them and it worked out perfect for both of us. I got called up to Triple-A the last month of the season, and as the years went by we both kept bouncing around through the system and missing each other. Then one night a couple years later, just as I was about to call him with the news that my wife had had a baby girl, Gardy called to tell me that his son, Toby, had been born that same day."

Anderson and Gardenhire both like to tell the story about the time Ron, then playing at Tidewater in the Mets system, was quoted in a newspaper profile as saying that one day he'd like to manage in the major leagues, and if given the opportunity would hire Rick Anderson as his pitching coach. Gardenhire now says he was pipe dreaming, but nothing about that--the loyalty, clear focus, or far-reaching ambition--much surprises the folks back in Okmulgee.

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