Okie from Okmulgee

The roots of Ron Gardenhire

The sign on the northern edge of Okmulgee, Oklahoma touts the community of 13,022 as the home of Mel McDaniel, "Recording Artist and Star of the Grand Ole Opry."

I pressed an old fellow at the Shell station in town for additional information regarding McDaniel, and he said, "He's some kind of country and western singer's all I've ever heard. Skeeter Davis is from somewhere around here as well." When I asked the man if he'd ever heard of Ron Gardenhire, another Okmulgee native, he hesitated a moment and then shook his head slowly. "The name's not ringing any bells," he said.

I told the guy that Gardenhire was the manager of the Minnesota Twins and a former Major League player with the New York Mets. "Well, there you go," he drawled. "That's baseball, now, isn't it? This here's pretty much a football town."

While there may have been some truth to that discouraging assessment--shop windows all over the community were crowded with all manner of University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State football souvenirs, from shot glasses to beer steins--it didn't, it turned out, take me long to find plenty of folks who still remembered Gardenhire and his days as an all-state shortstop with the Okmulgee High School Bulldogs.

I hit pay dirt right away, in fact, with the mayor, Everett Horn, a man who drives a tow truck and runs a salvage operation when he's not conducting city business.

"Shoot, yes, I know who Ron Gardenhire is," Horn told me. "I've known his family forever. He's a feather in our cap and we need more like him around here."

Horn sounded suitably chastened when I asked him why Gardenhire's name wasn't on the Okmulgee sign alongside Mel McDaniel's. "That's definitely something I should get on the agenda at the next City Council meeting," he said. "We're gonna have to do something about that. We've got some new industrial parks opening up shortly; maybe we could put his name on one of those or part of the highway."

Okmulgee's in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, 45 miles south of Tulsa and just down the road from Muskogee, the town made famous by Merle Haggard's enduring anthem of Okie pride. At the northern edge of the city, directly across Highway 75 from the Muskogee Creek Nation Tribal Center, sits an empty lot where the sprawling Phillips Oil refinery that was the cornerstone of the local economy once stood. The refinery went under during the oil bust of the late 1970s and was followed by the closing of the community's two large glass factories. Today, after years of decline, Okmulgee is undergoing a sort of humble renaissance, built largely around downtown historic preservation--the handsome Creek Council House, constructed in 1878 as the seat of the Creek Nation tribal government, is in the middle of town--and pecans. Okmulgee throws an annual Pecan Festival, and the community holds the world records for largest pecan pie, pecan cookie, and pecan brownie. Like lots of other similar small towns all over the country, the Okmulgee of the 21st century is a place of almost disorienting diversity, where the Wal-Mart and a Sonic drive-in share space on the main drag with authentic barbecue joints, Mexican restaurants, and old throwback diners like the Wonder Waffle.

Yet while it's clear that the Okmulgee that Ron Gardenhire left after graduating from high school--initially to play baseball at Paris Junior College in Texas--was a substantially different place than it is today, there are still remnants and reminders everywhere of the formative years he spent here. All the members of his immediate family--his mother, older sister, and two brothers--still live in Okmulgee, and the town is full of old friends and high school teammates.

The unofficial Ron Gardenhire shrine in Okmulgee is on the walls and cluttered shelves of Ralph's Barber Shop downtown, where Ralph Kovarik has been cutting hair for 51 years. Ralph is the curator of a modest and constantly expanding little museum devoted to Gardenhire's career, a collection of artifacts, memorabilia, signed photos, and newspaper clippings that stretches from his days as a local schoolboy hero to his years as a player in the Mets system right up to his present status as the first Twins manager to win three consecutive Central Division titles.

Ralph now splits the duties at his four-chair shop with his two sons, Ralph Jr. and Roger, and the Kovariks continue to faithfully follow Gardenhire's career from afar. These days, with the internet and Direct TV's Major League Baseball package--which thanks to Gardenhire does a booming business in Okmulgee--Ralph and his sons know as much about what's going on with the Twins as the most ardent fan in the Twin Cities. The morning after Minnesota clinched its third straight Central Division title in Chicago, as the Kovariks were sitting around the shop watching a video of the 8-2 victory and the celebration that ensued, Gardenhire's older sister, Donna Craddock, stopped in to exchange high fives all around.

After Roger replayed the final out--and a post-game interview with Gardenhire--several times, Ralph Sr. fished a clipping out of his stash and handed it to a visitor. The headline read, "Gardenhire Plates 10, Horns Roll," and the article recounted an 18-3 University of Texas victory over Arkansas in which the former Longhorn drove in a school-record ten runs with two homers and a double.

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.

This is the season, however, where I've lost all patience for the small army of Gardenhire critics. The team suffered devastating losses in the off-season (Guardado, Hawkins, Kenny Rogers, Eric Milton, A.J. Pierzynski, et al.) and continued to take hits right out of the gate when Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, and Shannon Stewart went down with injuries. The guy who was being counted on to replace Hawkins was sent back to Triple-A at one point, and Kyle Lohse, who had double-digit victories in each of the last two seasons and looked ready to become a solid number-two (if not a number-one) starter for years to come, stumbled badly and just kept stumbling. Yet the team--and, again, Gardenhire--found a way to patch things together, integrate the new faces, and just keep winning.

Much of the rancor directed toward Gardenhire probably stems from those loyal to the man he replaced. Kelly was as inscrutable as he was widely admired, and Gardy is as extroverted as T.K. was introverted. Kelly had a famous passive-aggressive streak and was for the most part openly contemptuous of the media and all interlopers in the inner sanctum that was his clubhouse. Gardy gregariously interacts with the fans around the dugout before and after games and maintains an easy, even when combative, banter with the media. He's one of the few people I've ever been around who can be genuinely charming when he's mad as hell, and even more charming when he's having a good day. One of the most gracious guys in all of baseball, he's willing to own up to his fuckups and reasonably defend his position when he feels he's right.

Yet for all the apparent dissimilarities between the two men, Kelly and Gardenhire share an essential philosophy about the game and how it was meant to be played, and Gardenhire has always been quick to credit Kelly's influence on his own managerial style.

"I was very lucky to come up as a coach with this team when T.K. was here," Gardenhire says. "Obviously you need to have good players and a good organization if you're going to have any chance, but Tom taught me so much about baseball, about what was expected at this level and how the game should be played. He was all about respecting the game and paying attention to the simple things like running hard to first base, catching the ball, and playing good defense. He really set the tone for this organization, and those are all things that under my watch we're always trying to maintain."

Bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek has the longest tenure of anyone on the Twins staff, and in his 24 years with the club he's worked for a handful of managers. "T.K.'s a dry, East Coast guy, and Ron has that small-town Oklahoma hillbilly humor, but as managers they're both plain vanilla and solid, straight-shooting guys," Stelmaszek says. "The job is as much about managing personalities as it is about managing the game, and they both understand their customers. That's the best way I can put it. They like to stay out of the way and let the players do their thing. This is a game based on failure, but it's not a matter of life and death, so you have to be able to laugh at yourself sometimes. You know, why come to work if you can't have some yuks?"

In a nutshell, Kelly's simple approach can be boiled down to a few basic tenets: do your work, play hard, and come to the ballpark and have fun. While Gardenhire has appropriated that same approach, he's also managed to escape T.K.'s long shadow and put a distinctly personal stamp on his team. Much of that stems from his personality, and the extent to which he's been able to convey to his players that he's a true believer in those tenets, and places equal emphasis on all of them.

Gardenhire met Steve Liddle, his current bench coach, in 1987, when they were both winding down their playing career with the Twins Triple-A club in Portland, Oregon. Gardenhire had recently been traded over from the Mets organization, and Liddle was a former Angels farmhand. "After we both retired we were coaching in the instructional league together," Liddle said. "Some nights we'd be sitting around going back and forth, talking baseball, and if a stranger came in off the street they'd think we were arguing, because we'd be practically at each other's throats. When you're kicking around at that level you're not making much money, so baseball was pretty much what consumed us. Gardy was a guy who was already figuring stuff out then, and he's pretty much the same guy today. You always hear people say that stability starts at the top, but so does instability. You'll never hear panic in Gardy's voice. His mission to all of us has always been that no matter what kind of setbacks we might have here, we have to find a way to make it work. He shows absolute confidence in his players and coaches. Ron's also a great communicator; there isn't any guessing game with him. The players always know where he stands or how he feels, and that really allows the guys to just relax and play to the best of their abilities."

 

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.

"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."

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