The Minnesota Twins recently unveiled their newest Twins Hall of Fame class. Fans widely celebrated it because it included franchise greats such as César Tovar, World Series champion and radio commentator Dan Gladden. They were long overdue for a spot among the team’s best. It also didn’t take long for one of the most recent guys to wear a Twins uniform to hear his name called. Longtime manager Ron Gardenhire.
You would be hard-pressed to find a Twins fan who doesn’t have a great memory of Gardy’s tenure as manager. His iconic screaming matches with umpires, slap-hitting, great defense, gritty players, and most importantly, wins filled his time in Minnesota. One thousand sixty-eight of them with the Twins, to be exact.
The last one undoubtedly is the biggest of them all. Gardenhire is the Twins’ second-winningest manager, going 1,068-1,039 from 2002-14. Tom Kelly is rightly considered the team’s best manager, but Gardy isn’t that far behind. In fact, Gardenhire deserves his slot into the Twins Hall of Fame because he was the perfect guy to lead the club out of the Kelly era and into their most consistently successful run.
Remember when he took over after the 2001 season? They went 613-776 from 1993-2001. Those Twins teams in the mid to late 90s were terrible, and the franchise was on the brink of being contracted. Now that wasn’t really on Kelly. Instead, it resulted from cheap ownership and mismanagement during that time. But the team was at the darkest point in their history a year before Gardenhire took over.
Minnesota has had some great managers in their past. Billy Martin, Gene Mauch, and Sam Mele. But none of them won consistently like Gardy and won at a crucial time for a franchise that almost ceased to exist.
Gardenhire was the third base coach during the end of Kelly’s run. He didn’t shake things up much, but he mimicked TK’s style using a new voice. It didn’t take long for the Twins to start winning either. Minnesota captured their first-ever AL Central title with a 94-67 record in 2002 and won their first playoff series since 1991. Gardenhire managed a winning team with the 27th-ranked payroll that year and one of baseball’s younger rosters that season.
Minnesota’s Cinderella story ended in the ALCS, but the playoff run re-energized a fan base. Gardenhire finished in first place in his first three years leading the Twins, something only four other managers in the history of baseball have accomplished. Minnesota won the Central five more times in the next decade and became perennial playoff contenders.
These playoff runs helped Minnesota increase fan attendance. Eventually, a team that MLB nearly contracted had a new stadium and a mid-sized payroll.
Gardenhire’s ability to get the most out of his guys made him a great manager. Whether it was yelling until his face was beet red or holding his arm around a player who needed some encouragement, Gardy was the definition of a player’s manager.
The 2000s era Twins featured some fantastic talent with the likes of Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, among plenty of others. But each one of them would tell you Gardenhire played a significant role in their success. Morneau credits Gardy with playing an essential role in turning him into a professional after a shaky start to his career.
“Obviously, the biggest thing for me was in 2006,’’ Morneau told the Star Tribune. “He sat me down in Seattle and, instead of turning me [downward], he kind of built me up. He told me … we expect a lot of you … we expect you to have a big impact on this ballclub.”
Morneau went on to win the MVP that season, slashing .321/.375/.559 with 34 home runs. He made the following four All-Star teams from 2007-10. A career aided by Gardenhire earned Morneau a spot in the Twins Hall of Fame last summer.
Nobody’s managing career is perfect, though. Gardy led the Twins to a dominant run from 2002-10 by winning the AL Central in six of those seasons, but his teams struggled in the postseason. After winning his first playoff series in 2002, the Twins looked overpowered and outplayed for the remainder of their playoff runs. He oversaw the beginning of Minnesota’s infamous 18-game playoff losing streak.
A playoff drought like that is statistically improbable, and it’s unfair to cast the blame on one person. That’s especially true, considering the playoff “curse” has continued with the team’s following two managers. Paul Molitor and Rocco Baldelli have gone 0-6 combined in the postseason.
Gardenhire’s legacy was also impacted by how his tenure ended in Minnesota. After the 2010 season, the Twins went 265-383 over the next four seasons while finishing dead last in the division. Minnesota’s issues were myriad, including a farm system that underperformed, key players who regressed or were injured, and poor pitching. The game passed the Twins by at the end of Gardy’s tenure. From 2011-14, Minnesota’s pitching was nearly dead-last in team ERA every season.
Gardenhire got his 1,000th managerial win in 2014. Unfortunately for Gardy, the Twins fired him at the end of the season.
While Gardy doesn’t escape all of the blame for the team’s drop-off, he’s not solely responsible for Minnesota’s mess at the time. In all fairness, his predecessor was the most outstanding manager in team history, and Kelly oversaw the bad Twins teams of the 90s. Sometimes a team is just bad, and there isn’t anything great coaching or gritty play can do to fix the core underlying issues.
Despite those struggles, Gardenhire was a great manager. He was exactly the guy the team needed to bring a new life into a franchise on death’s door. Twins baseball in the 2000s was fun because those teams won and were filled with great moments that their manager assuredly impacted. Gardenhire was never able to reach the highs of Kelly, but he won plenty of games. Gardy will be forever remembered in the company of managers like Kelly.