A Winning Personality

Despite being ejected from the game more than 50 times, Twins’ skipper Ron Gardenhire, ’77, has one of the best winning percentages in baseball—and as of Monday, one of the few players in the game’s history to hit 600 homers.

April 24, 2011: Target Field in Minneapolis, the Twins’ home turf. Cleveland Indians batter Michael Brantley sends a long fly to right field that whistles over the Twins’ outfielder’s head, hits the top of the stands, then bounces back onto the field. As Brantley trots the bases, thinking he’s socked a three-run homer, Gardenhire—who usually looks like a kindly grandfather—charges out of the Twins dugout, waving his arms.

“No! No! No!” he shouts, badgering the umpire crew to reexamine Brantley’s shot. After reviewing the play, the umps determine that the ball has hit the limestone overhang in right field, not the home run line. Brantley’s three-run dinger is ruled a two-run ground-rule double, forcing the Indians to give back a run. That proves to be the game changer, and the Twins win the contest 4-3.

Score one for Gardenhire, 52, who’s not afraid to run onto the field to argue a point. To be sure, he’s lost more heated disputes than he’s won; now in his tenth season as the Twins’ skipper, he has been ejected from the field 54 times. (Former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox holds the record at 161 ejections over 30 seasons.)

Gardenhire laughs at that statistic. “Yeah, I been tossed out of a few games,” he says with a snicker. “I’ve always been a pretty aggressive player. I learned that from my father—be yourself, handle yourself with respect, and fight for what you believe in.

“And I’ll always fight for my players,” he adds. “I want them to do their best, and I want them to know I’ve got their back.”

Managing the Twins is a dream job, Gardenhire says. But the dream almost became a nightmare in 2002, the year he was named manager and the Minnesota Twins almost disappeared from the face of the Earth.


First Sergeant Clyde Gardenhire took his family with him as he traveled the world, and Ron was born on an Army base in Butzbach, West Germany. Wherever Clyde was stationed, Ron could find a Little League team to join or a bunch of boys to choose up sides for a baseball or football game. The family finally settled in Tulsa, Okla., where Ron attended Okmulgee High School and competed in football, baseball, and wrestling.

“I always thought I’d join the Army out of high school, just like my dad,” Gardenhire recalls. “I remember being a little kid on a base in California, watching my dad lead a marching squad, and thinking I’d like to do that.”

But he also had another dream: to see himself on a baseball card.

“All little kids who watch the game imagine themselves playing professionally. When I played or practiced by myself, acting out being my favorite player, I envisioned myself as a Major Leaguer, and wondered if I’d be lucky enough to make it and be on a baseball card.”

He wanted to be Mickey Mantle, for strength and just plain coolness, or slick-fielding Cincinnati Reds shortstop Dave Concepcion. After high school, his father encouraged him to enroll at Paris Junior College, where he joined the school’s baseball squad. At a regional game at UT, former head UT baseball coach Cliff Gustafson was in the stands admiring Gardenhire’s hustle. After the game, Gustafson caught up with the lanky shortstop and recruited him.

“He said, ‘Son, you ought to be a Longhorn,’” Gardenhire says with a smile. “My family was [Oklahoma] Sooner fans, and they said I defected. I learned a lot of baseball from Coach Gus and [former infield coach] Bill Bethea.”

Gustafson remembers being impressed with Gardenhire’s skills and speed. “He made an impact on our team right away,” Gustafson says. “He was a good defensive shortstop, which we didn’t have at that point. He filled a big hole.”

Gardenhire was a two-year letterman at shortstop for the Longhorns in 1978-79. In 1979, his senior year, he was a first-team all-Southwest Conference selection, and helped Texas win the SWC title and fourth place in the College World Series.

His 10 RBIs against Arkansas in 1978 is still a school record, and a story Gustafson will never forget.

“In our first conference game with Arkansas, our biggest rival, Ron got a hit in his first at-bat,” he says. “They tried to pick him off second, and he dove back to the bag and jammed his thumb. I saw it was pretty serious, and the team doctor said Ron was probably in a lot of pain and thought he’d need surgery. But Ron wanted to stay in the game. When he next came up to bat, the bases were loaded and I asked if he could still swing a bat. He took a few practice cuts and looked terrible. I told him to bunt, but he said, ‘No, just let me take one crack at it.’ Well, that first pitch he hit out of the park for a grand slam. The next time he came up, he hit another homer for three more RBIs. He finished the game with four hits and 10 RBIs—all with a broken thumb. Then he was out for the rest of the season.”

In 1979, the New York Mets drafted him in the sixth round, and he played for the team from 1981-85. He was later traded to the Minnesota Twins, where he played one season for their Triple-A affiliate before retiring.

In 1988, he began his managerial career in the Twins minor league organization and was named Baseball America’s Best Manager in 1989, then Southern League co-manager of the Year in 1990. He was promoted to Twins’ bench coach and was named manager in 2002, the same year the organization almost went out of business.

In 1991, the last year the Twins won the World Series, the team drew about 2.3 million fans. Over the next eight years, the Twins’ winning record became progressively worse, and by 2000, attendance had shrunk to just over 1 million. The team was barely paying its bills, and before the 2002 season, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig considered dissolving the organization.

Ironically, that’s when Gardenhire was named manager of the Twins.

“I was really excited when the general manager made me manager, but he said, ‘Obviously, you know what’s going on.’ It was pretty unsettling and heartbreaking, because Minneapolis is such a great baseball town. And it was tough trying to run a coaching staff when none of us knew if we were going to have a job.”

Two things saved the Twins—a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that required the Twins to finish their lease in their stadium, and an unexpected, Walt Disney movie-worthy turnaround that saw the team finish the season in first place. Five straight winning seasons brought the fans back, and drummed up enough public and private sector support for a new $544 million stadium.

Under Gardenhire’s nine-year stewardship, the Twins won the American League Central Division title six times, and he was runner-up to the A.L. Manager of the Year Award five times before winning the award last year.

And on Monday, his player Jim Thome became the 8th player in baseball history to hit 600 home runs.

Gardenhire and his wife Carol have three children. The oldest, Toby, was drafted in 2005 by the Twins in the 41st round. He’s currently playing for the Rochester Red Wings, the Twins’ AAA club. Perhaps one day, like his father, Toby will see his face on a sports card.

“To this day, it’s still strange when people walk up to me and ask me to sign my baseball card,” Gardenhire says. “It’s like a dream come true.”

Photos: Ron Gardenhire and Jim Thome watch the proceedings as the Twins take on the Chicago White Sox (above); Gardenhire watches alone. Courtesy Twins Baseball.



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