For a few years there, I saw it as my personal mission to the spread the gospel of Ron Gardenhire, then manager of the Minnesota Twins. From 2002 to 2010 or so, Gardy had an amazing run. The team won the American League Central six times in nine years.
And they won those championships with players who were, bluntly, not very good. In 2002, they won 94 games with an offense that couldn’t score (ninth in the American League) and pitching staff without a single starter throwing 200 innings. In 2003, none of the five starters who made at least 20 starts had an ERA less than 4.49, and only Torii Hunter managed 20 home runs. They won the division again.
In 2008, their rotation was Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, an almost unpitchable Francisco Liriano, my buddy Glen Perkins who was soon in the minors reestablishing himself as a reliever, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano. They won the division.
In 2010, their closer Joe Nathan blew out in spring training, their former MVP Justin Morneau had a concussion and missed half the season. They won the division.
Twins fans would often to write to me then to say that the team was winning IN SPITE of Gardy, not because of him, and I believed that to a point. I sometimes think that, strategically anyway, managers in general hurt their teams more than they help — meaning that if they would fall asleep in the dugout they might do better than some of the ill-advised maneuvers that they try when wide awake. Gardy was an old-school type, meaning he would occasionally spit on advanced metrics and would talk a lot about the intangible value of Nick Punto.
But the team seemed to fulfill their potential year after year, at least in the regular season. Yes, they were playing in an often lousy division. Yes, it helped in many of those years to have 19 games with the Royals and Tigers and Indians. Yes, in the postseason they would collapse at the first hint of wind. But, honestly, they won six division titles. You look at those teams. Other than 2006 — when they had a legitimately great team with Joe Mauer and Morneau at full power and the good versions of Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano — show me a Twins team that you could win with in Strat-o-Matic. You telling me some other manager is getting more out of Christian Guzman and Boof Bonser?
Anyway, the last four years have been entirely different. The Twins have lost 92-plus games every year and have been general non-competitive. It hasn’t helped that Joe Mauer has aged five years at a time or that the Twins thought it was a good idea to give Ricky Nolasco a billion jillion dollars. But whatever. The Twins fired Gardy Monday, and it makes me sad, obviously, but it’s not like you could blame them. This is the deal with baseball managers. Maybe Gardy did get too much of the credit when the team winning. Now comes the time when he gets too much of the blame.
I suspect Gardy will get another shot with a team, though you never know about these things. Lately the theme seems to be to hire 1980s and 1990s All-Stars — Matt Williams (five times), Robin Ventura (1992), Brad Ausmus (1999), Don Mattingly (six times), Walt Weiss (1998), Ryne Sandberg (10 times) and so on. It makes you wonder if the days are gone when teams will hire scrappy middle infielders who couldn’t hit. Teams seem to be shifting toward player-manager types, once good players who the young players grew up watching.
Gardy comes from the Tom Kelly school — he was the valedictorian of the Tom Kelly school — where managers grump and demand and instill and bunt too much and occasionally fall in love with limited but gritty players. When you get the right players, the Gardy style can still win a lot of games. When you get the wrong players, the Gardy style can still lose a lot games. It’s almost enough to make you think it’s really all about the players.