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AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: ANGELS VS. MINNESOTA
| Diane Pucin

Gardenhire Was Meant for the Job

October 08, 2002|Diane Pucin

MINNEAPOLIS — Ron Gardenhire will be 45 in two weeks. His hair is stately white. But watch out. Mr. Gardenhire is not above pulling the exploding golf ball trick on Twin utility infielder David Ortiz. He also likes to put peanut butter in guys' underwear.

Gardenhire is the Twins' manager, a position of responsibility, of serious purpose, yet he ran off the field Sunday after a brief workout shouting "Boys, that's a wrap."

A little jab at the Disney-owned Angels? Maybe not, but it would be a good line if Gardenhire had intended it, wouldn't it?

"Sure would," Gardenhire says.

On the day after the Minnesota Twins upset the Oakland Athletics in an American League division series, Gardenhire sits in his office and says, quite frankly, he wouldn't be there if the league didn't require him to fulfill media obligations.

"I'm running on fumes," Gardenhire says. "But that's OK. We're here for you."

And, really, tired though Gardenhire and the Twins were after arriving home from Oakland in the middle of the night, they wouldn't have been anywhere else, not after a heart-wrenching ninth inning Sunday in which they took a 5-1 lead and then endured an A's rally that ended one run short with the tying run on first.

That was better than great.

Last winter, the situation was more like the standard good news, bad news. Gardenhire had been named the Twin manager.

It was a thrill for a baseball lifer who had seemed destined to spend his life as the man behind the man, the good soldier who might never get his big chance.

Yet it appeared that the job was for a team that couldn't make trades, that couldn't sign free agents, that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig very much wanted to erase from existence.

So here are the keys to the big office, Ron. Don't get too comfortable.

"Look, it might have seemed like a tough situation, but I never looked at it that way," Gardenhire said. "There were times I wondered if I'd ever get this chance. When I got it, I couldn't let myself think I'd never get the chance to do the job. Just couldn't think that way."

If it seemed Gardenhire was the sacrificial lamb, the guy thrown the job because everybody knew he'd never get to do it, Twin General Manager Terry Ryan said that is simply wrong.

"In his years with us, what we knew was that Ron was a great leader," Ryan said.

"He was a loyal employee. He had worked with and developed many of our young players in the minors. He understood our organization, our philosophy, our budget, what we are about. He understood the community and its relationship to this team. He obviously understands the game and knows how to motivate players.

"And let me say, contrary to how it might seem, Ron was not the only man interested in the job. Our situation may have been uncertain, but people who know baseball understood the group of young, talented players we had. If we survived, somebody was going to get a very good job."

And so the chance of a lifetime went to a man who had played in Lynchburg, Jackson, Tidewater, Portland and four brief times with the New York Mets, a man who had managed in Kenosha and Orlando, a man who had been a bench coach, first base coach and third base coach for the Twins.

His players say Gardenhire has earned their respect because of his background.

"This is a man who has always gone about his business in the best way, learning his job, understanding the players, knowing what it is we do," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said.

"He was one of us, then he coached a lot of us. I can tell you that everybody in our clubhouse couldn't have been happier when Gardy got the job.

"He kept us loose through the turmoil. He's treated guys fairly. He says what needs to be said, he isn't a pushover. But he's not above playing the prank, keeping things fun."

Gardenhire speaks to his players, owners and Twin fans, with uncomplicated honesty.

Was he nervous in Game 5 Sunday, in the bottom of the ninth, when his closer, Eddie Guardado, seemed to be falling apart?

"I remember I had said something on the airplane Saturday night. 'OK, boys, I am going to bring a bunch of extra barf bags in case anybody needs one for tomorrow's game.' I promise you," Gardenhire said, "on my desk there are barf bags."

Gardenhire was not afraid to admit what many Twin fans were thinking Sunday afternoon, after Oakland rookie Mark Ellis hit a three-run home run off Guardado and Randy Velarde carved out a pinch-hit single.

"I was torn whether I should go get him," Gardenhire said. "I have left him out there, he has been our guy and you get to that situation, should you go get him? I said, 'He has got to get Ray Durham out,' and it was the hardest decision I have had all year and it was very tough, but I wanted that young man out there."

For both Gardenhire's faith and honesty, Guardado was grateful.

"I didn't make it easy on Gardy, but he makes it easy on us," Guardado said. "That's what's great about him. He doesn't sugarcoat anything, but he also has faith in his players."

If the Twins' previous manager, Tom Kelly, had not retired; if the Twins had been contracted, if Gardenhire hadn't been given this chance, does he wonder if he ever would have been a major league manager?

"More and more, guys who've had much better playing careers than I've ever had are wanting to become managers," Gardenhire said. "I would have had to face it that my time might have passed. But it didn't, thank goodness."

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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