By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
"That's just Ronnie," Gardenhire's sister Donna says. "He's always been very special in that way. When he sets his mind on something, that stone isn't going to move. Our father was an old first sergeant in the Army, and he gave us all a lot of motivation to work hard and do the right thing."
Clyde Gardenhire was a career military man and World War II veteran who moved his family to Okmulgee after retiring from the service. He was by all accounts a strict father and a passionate student of the game of baseball. "Ronnie inherited that from my dad right from the beginning," Donna says. "When we watched a baseball game we watched a baseball game, even if it was on television. There was no fooling around, no talking. If you had questions you could ask them when the game was over."
Ralph Kovarik remembers taking a group of boys up to Tulsa to see a minor-league game one time. "I suppose Ronnie would have been nine or ten years old," Kovarik says. "Tulsa at the time had the Cardinals Triple-A club, the Oilers, and Ronnie just wanted us all to shut up so he could watch that game. He knew exactly what was going on, and it was almost like he could envision himself out there on that field."
Gardenhire's old high school teammate and running buddy Gene Walters teaches math and coaches the basketball team at Okmulgee High. Walters and Gardenhire started playing ball together as kids and were part of some powerhouse summer league and high school teams in the early- to mid-1970s.
"We were still a big oil city in those days," Walters says. "We had twice as many kids in the high school than we have now, and we just had some unbelievably deep baseball teams. Ronnie was a hell of a player, and he had him an absolute shotgun for an arm, but I'd have to say it was a pretty good horse race as to who was the best ballplayer on some of those teams. I think we had something like 11 guys on our high school team who went on to play college ball at some level. The thing that set Ronnie apart was his drive, his attitude, and his sense of humor. He always understood that there was no sense in getting torqued up about stuff you couldn't do a damn thing about."
Walters and I tooled around Okmulgee yacking and checking out all the local landmarks. Walters is a warm, garrulous guy, and a thoroughly entertaining tour guide. He took me by the old Rotary Park, where he and Ron first played in a cap-and-glove league as kids ("No uniforms," Walters said. "You just showed up and played"), and we pulled off on a little side street and checked out the now-empty lot--only a rusting backstop remained of the playground--where Gardenhire had once attended school at Franklin Elementary. Finally we drove "the Big L"--the Friday and Saturday night orbit for generations of Okmulgee teenagers that runs up Sixth Street through downtown, around the Creek Council House in the middle of town, and out south on Highway 75--and ended up at Bateman Park, the local baseball stadium that's tucked away behind the Bee Line Bowl at the edge of the city limits.
We hopped the fence and wandered across the empty ballpark. In left field, adorning the green-painted wood-slat fence, were tributes to all the Okmulgee baseball all-state selections through the years. Gardenhire's, from 1975, is right there next to Walters's. "There it is," Walters said with a chuckle. "Immortality. I don't see as how Ronnie could do much better than that."
Folks in Okmulgee are unabashedly proud of Gardenhire, but you shouldn't necessarily understand that to imply that they're unduly impressed by the accomplishments of their low-key local hero. That's just not their style.
"I have all the respect in the world for my brother," Allen Gardenhire said. "I played a little bit of baseball when I was younger, but quite honestly I always had more fun watching him play than I ever had actually playing. Even now when I see him on TV I can't quite believe it. He still just looks like a little kid in a candy store. Whenever I start getting carried away by everything Ronnie's accomplished I can always keep it in check by reminding myself that this is the same guy who used to beat the crap out of me."
As I dropped Gene Walters back at the high school after our tour of Okmulgee, he pointed out the new gym that's being constructed out back. "When it's finished we'd like to bring in Ronnie and some other dignitaries for some of sort of ceremony," Walters said and then caught himself. "Oh, Lord," he laughed. "Did I really just call Ronnie a dignitary? That almost hurts." When I told Walters about the mayor's earlier proposal he said, "You know, as much as it pains me to admit this, it is probably only a matter of time until they slap Ronnie's name on something in town."