Ron Gardenhire, self-proclaimed as an Army brat born in Germany, and as an Okie from Okmulgee, retired Saturday as manager of the Detroit Tigers with 10 games remaining in this pandemic-shortened season.
He had taken over a Tigers team facing a huge rebuilding project in 2018, with a three-year contract that would be finished at the end of this season.
General Manager Al Avila came into Gardenhire’s office to talk some baseball on Saturday afternoon, talk about the future, and then the manager — 63 next month — said: “I’ll step out right now.’’
A survivor of prostate cancer, Gardenhire said he hadn’t been feeling very well since coming down with a stomach virus earlier this month while in Minnesota, and added, “I’ve got grandbabies and kids I need to take care of, and my wife.” Bench coach Lloyd McClendon will take over the rest of the season.
Gardenhire always will be “Gardy’’ to Minnesota sports fans, the third base coach who succeeded long-term manager Tom Kelly, and then became long-term himself, managing the Twins to a 1,068-1,039 record over 13 seasons. The first nine were outstanding — six AL Central division titles from 2002 to 2010 — and the last four did great damage to his won-loss percentage, as did the three in Detroit (132-241, .354).
Gardenhire had an impact in turning potential into excellence for numerous Twins during the run of division titles, and perhaps none more so than Justin Morneau.
A notorious event for those winning teams of the 2000s came in 2006, when Gardenhire summoned Morneau to a meeting during a weekend series at Seattle in early June. Morneau was batting in the .230s, the Twins were eight games under .500 and he was said to have gotten in rather late with some pals from British Columbia after the Friday night game.
The legend was that Morneau was confronted by an angry manager. Morneau, now a Twins TV analyst, was invited to a Zoom interview Saturday to talk with Twin Cities reporters and offered a far different account.
Morneau paid tribute to Gardenhire for his development as a raw fielder at first base, for treating “him like a son’’ as a 22-year-old, and also said:
“Obviously, the biggest thing for me was in 2006. 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.’’
Gardenhire also told Morneau the Twins expected him to be a “professional,’’ a message the first baseman seized to the point that he would become the American League MVP in that comeback season for the Twins (start 25-33, finish 71-33).
Morneau said that when he entered that meeting with Gardenhire he thought he was going to be sent to the minors, and perhaps not come back. “The way he handled it, the way he set expectations for me without making me feel like a disappointment, had the most impact of any conversation I had in my career,’’ Morneau said.
The relationship became so strong that, when Gardenhire was a coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017, he and his wife, Carol, lived in a condo owned by Morneau.
Gardenhire’s son Toby was supposed to be Twins’ Class AAA Rochester manager this season. He has been working with the reserve squad in St. Paul. Toby came to exchange lineup cards with his father when the Tigers were at Target Field over Labor Day weekend.
Morneau’s good wishes for Gardenhire on Saturday included this: “Maybe [he will] watch his son do what he did one day,” meaning manage in the big leagues.
Staff writer Phil Miller contributed.