Twins manager is in limbo with contract

Published 1:34pm Saturday, September 28, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Right after Ron Gardenhire’s unremarkable playing career ended, the Minnesota Twins eagerly gave him a minor-league managing job.

His boss now believed back then that Gardenhire was bound to eventually run a major league club — and he was right.

Twenty-five years later, Gardenhire’s remarkable tenure with the Twins could be at the end after three straight seasons with at least 93 losses.

“We didn’t know last winter, either. So I think that you can’t really worry about that,” closer Glen Perkins said. “It’s not for the players to decide or to think about or anything like that. The players want him here. We all like him. We all like playing for him. What that’s worth? I don’t know. That’s a decision that will come from upstairs.”

General manager Terry Ryan has said all along that the front office won’t decide whether to keep Gardenhire until next week when the season is over, but his contract will expire without an extension. This is a limbo-like feeling the 55-year-old has never experienced as a manager, but the three-year skid by the Twins is the type of brutal stretch rarely survived by those in charge.

The Twins have had only two bench bosses since 1986: Gardenhire and Tom Kelly.

What Kelly had, however, were two World Series titles. That made it easier for the Twins to keep him through eight straight losing seasons before his retirement in 2001 once the team had become a contender again. Gardenhire, Kelly’s third base coach for 11 years, was hired to replace him in 2002.

And there he’s stayed ever since.

“He’s done it with all sorts of people, and he’s done it with a lot of pride in working for the Twins, which he states often,” said Ryan, who was the team’s scouting director in 1988 when Gardenhire gave up his shortstop’s glove for the skipper’s seat with Class A Kenosha.

Ryan added: “We’ve been through some tough years here the last three, and none of us are proud of that, yet he’s held his head up. I give him that. He hasn’t cracked.”

The 12 straight years running the same team puts Gardenhire tied for the 18th-longest tenure in Major League Baseball history, according to STATS research. Connie Mack’s 50 seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics is still the unfathomable standard, but these days a decade wearing the same uniform without interruption is an unusual sight.

With his flair for storytelling, quick wit and longevity in the game, Gardenhire has become quite popular among his peers. His time with the Twins trails only Mike Scioscia of the Los Angeles Angels, who was hired in 2000.

“I think he’s the best manager in the league. I’ve been on the record in saying that. And I still think that,” said Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “He runs a great game, and he’s a great people person. I have the utmost respect for Ron, and I think he does a terrific job. When he’s got the cards, he plays ‘em as good as anybody.”

Gardenhire’s popularity — and the depleted talent on this year’s team — is what makes the decision difficult. The Twins have won six AL Central titles in his 12 seasons, but the only time they advanced past the divisional round was his first year in 2002. His postseason record is 6-21, with the last win coming in 2004. But he was voted AL Manager of the Year in 2010, when the Twins won 94 games.

With Justin Morneau traded and Joe Mauer injured, Gardenhire has been patching together a Triple A-level lineup for the last several weeks. He’s learned firsthand what Kelly once told him about becoming a better manager in times of struggle rather than success.

“I know what a boxer feels like, now,” Gardenhire said. “Without the bruises.”

He added: “You’re supposed to enjoy it, and I try to enjoy myself at the ballpark every day, but I don’t like going home at night every night, you know, thinking about what happened, how we lost that one. That’s pretty frustrating.”

One solace from this season would’ve been Gardenhire’s 1,000th career victory. Only seven active managers — and 59 in history — have that many. But the Twins have been so bad in September that Gardenhire was stuck on 998 wins entering Friday with three games remaining.

There’s little question about him reaching the milestone. The question is whether it will be with the Twins.

“I’m trying to take a lot of responsibility for what’s going on with this record,” Ryan said. “I’m not pretending that he’s got the most talented roster we have ever seen him have, so we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We know that.”