DETROIT — Ron Gardenhire mostly maintained his jovial demeanor this season. As recently as Friday night, he was needling a reporter while discussing a strategic decision from the late innings.
Less than 24 hours later, Gardenhire announced his retirement. This year was taking more of a toll on the 62-year-old Detroit Tigers manager than he’d necessarily let on.
As much as he enjoyed managing, Gardenhire valued his health more.
“It’s been wonderful here, but I also know I have to take care of myself,” said Gardenhire, who was nearing the end of his third season with the Tigers. “When you come to the ballpark, and you’re stressed out all day, and your hands are shaking, that’s not fun. I’ve got grandbabies, I’ve got kids that I need to take care of, and my wife.”
Gardenhire’s announcement came in an abruptly scheduled video conference about an hour before Saturday night’s game against Cleveland. General manager Al Avila said he made a routine visit to Gardenhire’s office Saturday, when the manager told him about the decision.
Gardenhire, who has battled cancer and diabetes, expressed some unease about the coronavirus back in June before the season began. He also recently missed a couple games because of stomach issues.
“This is tough. It’s a tough day for me. Didn’t expect it, tell you the truth, when I walked in,” Gardenhire said. “But I just know how I’ve been feeling lately, and I expressed that to Al, and elected to just go ahead and step down.”
A message of “Thank you, Gardy” was posted on the scoreboard at Comerica Park.
“On behalf of all of us with the Detroit Tigers, congratulations to Ron Gardenhire on a tremendous managerial career,” Tigers CEO Christopher Ilitch said in a statement. “One of the best baseball men around, we’re fortunate to have had Gardy lead our team for the past three seasons, and during this rebuilding period. He has done a great job in shaping the future successes I know our organization will see.”
Bench coach Lloyd McClendon is taking over as manager for the rest of the season, which is scheduled to end Sept. 27. Detroit is 22-29 after beating the Indians 5-2 on Saturday. That was the 500th managerial victory for McClendon, who had stints with Pittsburgh and Seattle.
McClendon, who said after the game he’d be interested in the Detroit opening beyond this season, spoke a bit about the rigors of 2020 and how they might have affected Gardenhire.
“I know things were weighing on him heavily, and it was a tough grind,” McClendon said. “This has been a very, very emotional season for all of us in a lot of different ways – with the pandemic and all the other things that are going on in this country, it’s been really, really tough. The 60-game schedule in a lot of ways has seemed like a 175-game schedule.”
Gardenhire previously had a 13-year run with the Minnesota Twins that included six AL Central titles.
“I’d like to congratulate Gardy on one of the best managerial careers, really in major league baseball history,” Avila said. “His leadership and hard work over the last three seasons has put us in a position to get closer to our goal of bringing back winning baseball to Detroit.”
Gardenhire had to oversee a significant rebuild with the Tigers that included a 114-loss season in 2019.
“He took us through the toughest two years of the transition. This year, this third season, probably as tough as any, just because of the pandemic,” Avila said. “The COVID-19 over your head, all the new changes … the stress level was through the roof.”
Gardenhire’s surprise retirement came as the Indians were getting ready to play their 38th game without their manager, Terry Francona, who has been sidelined after undergoing surgery for a gastrointestinal issue and some blood clotting complications which followed the procedure.
The 61-year-old Francona, who is in his eighth year with Cleveland, still hopes to return before this season ends.
Whoever takes over the Detroit managerial job will be tasked with guiding the team through an important stage in its process. Pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal had a chance to get some experience in the majors this year, and other young players will be crucial over the next couple seasons.
Gardenhire took over for longtime Twins manager Tom Kelly and managed Minnesota from 2002-14, going 1,068-1,039. Minnesota won the division six times in his first nine seasons at the helm, and he was American League Manager of the Year in 2010.
He was a bench coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks before returning to the AL Central with the Tigers for the 2018 season. Detroit was 132-241 under Gardenhire.
Gardenhire played five seasons in the majors, all with the New York Mets, and was a light-hitting infielder in the 1980s.
“Always, you’ll miss baseball,” Gardenhire said. “You miss the game, but you miss the people in it, the coaches, the staff here. Those are the tough things, but I’m only a phone call away. … I won’t just go away totally. This is just a moment, I know I have to take care of myself right now and get myself back to where I need to be.
“I appreciate baseball for everything they’ve given me and my family, and it’s been a good career.”