Even all these years later, Toby Gardenhire isn't sure whether the Twins would have drafted him in 2005 if he wasn't the manager's son. But he's certain about how he climbed the minor league ladder all the way to Class AAA.
"I wasn't very good. I was a utility guy. I could catch the ball a little bit, but I couldn't hit my weight," Gardenhire said modestly about his seven-year professional baseball career. "But when you put on the uniform, they're not going to move you up unless you earn the right."
It's the same for managers, too. Which is why Gardenhire, son of former American League Manager of the Year Ron Gardenhire, sounded so excited, but also confident, as he was introduced Tuesday as the new manager of the St. Paul Saints. Once again, he's one step from the major leagues, and it's not because of his last name.
"I knew from a pretty early age that once I was done playing, I was going to get into coaching," said the 38-year-old Gardenhire, who owns a .555 winning percentage (151-121) in two minor league seasons. "I always knew I was going to coach."
That experience goes back farther than for most managers, of course. When he was 10 and his father was the Twins' third base coach, manager Tom Kelly invited Gardenhire to fill out a lineup card for that night's game.
"Then he said it was no good, and he ripped it up and threw it in the trash," Gardenhire joked. But kidding aside, "managing has always just been a passion of mine, whether it's talking through game strategies or writing out lineup cards."
Now he'll do that only 20 minutes away from the dugout his father stalked, trying to mold the same sort of seasoned big leaguers that helped Ron Gardenhire win six division titles in his first nine seasons. He'll be working in his hometown, practically walking distance from Roseville High, where "I lost to Joe Mauer and Cretin-Derham Hall [in conference championship games] every single year."
And he'll be helping some of the Twins' most polished prospects take the final step up the baseball ladder that he never quite managed.
Painful? No, helpful, he said.
"Just learning from players going up and down, seeing how they handled it, it really was a very cool experience that I learned a lot from. Now when I deal with players, I use that information," said Gardenhire, whose playing career stalled at AAA Rochester in 2011. "You go through a real emotional roller coaster when you get sent up to the big leagues, or when you get sent down. There's real highs and lows. So being able to be up there for a few years, I learned a lot."
That's a different assignment than the ones he has been doing up until now, even though his titles have been mostly the same. He "learned the whole shebang," he says of his five seasons (2012-16) as head coach at Wisconsin-Stout, for instance. "You learn a lot when you're in there doing the laundry and you're putting the tarp on at midnight and you're out there raking the field in the morning," Gardenhire recalled of his stint with the Blue Devils. "That's the whole gamut of baseball."
And when the Twins hired him to coach their teenage rookies in the Gulf Coast League, then put him in charge of raw A-level players at Cedar Rapids (2018) and Fort Myers (2019), the task was identifying who could reach the majors and teaching them what it would take. At Class AAA, some players have been there and want to get back; some are on their way, and the job is to get them ready and able.
He auditioned for that job last summer after the minor league seasons were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Gardenhire helped run daily workouts for the Twins' nonroster players at CHS Field, in case they were needed.
"It got me a chance to hang out with [Twins manager] Rocco [Baldelli] and [bench coach] Mike Bell and the coaching staff up there," Gardenhire said. "That's really important, for the Triple-A manager to have a good relationship with those guys. [Baldelli] knows he can call me anytime, and I'll be able to tell him whatever he needs to know about any of his guys."