Toby Gardenhire grew up in a Twins-focused environment, what with his father, Ron, being the third base coach and later longtime manager for the Minneapolis-based major league team.
Still, the younger Gardenhire had some East-of-the-Mississippi influences, too. His family lived in Little Canada, and he graduated from Roseville High School in 2001.
Twenty years later, Gardenhire was back in St. Paul on Tuesday night, managing the St. Paul Saints as they made their home debut as the Twins' Class AAA team at CHS Field. The Saints are transitioning from the quirky, fun-focused team that played 28 seasons of independent ball to serving as the top farm club for the Twins.
"You know there's going to be big energy in the stadium, and it's going to be a lot of fun," Gardenhire said Tuesday afternoon before the evening's game against the Iowa Cubs. "We want to go out there and win a baseball game for the fans."
Turns out, Gardenhire would have to settle for some energy but little fun, no victory and only two hits from his team. Behind six innings of no-hit pitching from righthander Joe Biagini, the Cubs routed the Saints 11-1 in front of 3,592.
Tomas Tellis' two-out home run in the seventh off reliever Dakota Mekkes broke up Iowa's bid for a second consecutive combined no-hitter.
"It was exciting. The fans were pumped up," Gardenhire said. "Everything was good — except for the baseball."
Gardenhire, 38, had no idea his baseball career would come full circle in managing the Saints, though he did envision suiting up for the independent squad at one time.
"I actually thought I was going to play here at one point," Gardenhire said. "I always said that when I got done playing in the Twins organization, I'd like to go play for the Saints for a year. It didn't end up happening, and I went straight into coaching after that. It's really nice to be in St. Paul."
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gardenhire has been in St. Paul for quite a while. He was set to manage Class AAA Rochester for the Twins last season, but affiliated minor league baseball was canceled. Instead, Gardenhire led the Twins' reserves in alternate site workouts at CHS Field. The start of the 2021 minor league season was delayed one month until May 4, and the Saints played their first six games in Omaha, going 2-4 against the Storm Chasers.
"Being in Omaha was nice because it gave us a chance to get back to playing baseball games, but playing our first game in St. Paul is a really special thing," Gardenhire said. "It feels like the beginning."
BOXSCORE: Iowa 11, Saints 1
Gardenhire's managing chops have been put to the test in the season's first eight days, with the Saints already having 16 player transactions, including three Tuesday.
In Sunday's series finale in Omaha, injuries prompted the Saints to use an outfielder at second base, catchers at first and third base and a pitcher to hit.
On Tuesday, the Saints went through all the pregame pomp and circumstance associated with a home opener.
They haven't abandoned their "Fun is Good" mantra, and the assorted bells and whistles such as "ushertainers" and fan-friendly, between-innings contests. Saints pig mascot Mudonna and Twins mascot T.C. Bear reprised the iconic Minnie and Paul handshake, a nod to the teams' new arrangement.
The Cubs, though, spoiled the party, prompting a smattering of boos as the Iowa lead grew from 6-0 to 11-0 in the sixth inning.
The business at hand — developing players for the Twins — will be Gardenhire's focus, and the fact that it's happening in St. Paul makes it all the better for him.
"I've been pretty lucky. I've been able to manage and coach in a lot of pretty cool spots," he said.
"This is just one more step. … Managing the St. Paul Saints, I can tell you, never really was one of the things I thought I'd be doing. I'm pretty happy to be where I'm at."