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Leyland confident Gardenhire will thrive in Detroit

Retired Tigers manager believes in former foe, club's new skipper
MLB.com @beckjason

DETROIT -- Ron Gardenhire mentioned a bevy of people in his introductory press conference as Tigers manager in October. The very first was an old nemesis.

"Jim Leyland and I were good buddies, one of the managers that I talked to an awful lot," Gardenhire said that afternoon. "Tampering was one of his favorite things to do, and he told me, 'When I leave, I want you to manage here.' He did that a lot, and I loved him for it."

DETROIT -- Ron Gardenhire mentioned a bevy of people in his introductory press conference as Tigers manager in October. The very first was an old nemesis.

"Jim Leyland and I were good buddies, one of the managers that I talked to an awful lot," Gardenhire said that afternoon. "Tampering was one of his favorite things to do, and he told me, 'When I leave, I want you to manage here.' He did that a lot, and I loved him for it."

Those remarks weren't quite that direct, Leyland insisted, but he did say them. It was one of the things they discussed during their chats behind the cage during batting practice. Leyland didn't venture out to talk to every manager in that setting, but he did for Gardenhire.

Video: Avila talks hiring Gardenhire on MLB Tonight

"I wasn't really tampering or anything," Leyland recalled. "What I meant was you could see that with our market, what Mr. [Mike] Ilitch was doing, the people that were coming out to the ballpark, and we had an owner who wanted to win here, I hope you get a chance to manage here at some point, because this is a great place.

"I just always thought that he'd be a perfect fit for a place like Detroit. I really believe that, and I think you're going to see that come true."

Leyland saw a little bit of himself in Gardenhire, a scrappy player who had to pay his dues in the Minor Leagues and then coaching in the Majors before earning his chance to manage. Leyland saw how Gardenhire handled his players, got the most out of them, and handled the media. If Gardenhire ever left Minnesota, Leyland believed, he could be a kindred spirit to fans in Detroit.

Video: Ron Gardenhire joins Hot Stove to discuss new role

"He's a blue-collar, nuts-and-bolts, no-BS guy," Leyland said.

Gardenhire's assessment of Leyland was similar.

"It was fascinating just watching him how he handled people," Gardenhire said. "He was a no-nonsense guy, yes, but he had a certain aura around him that when he talked, people stopped and listened. That's where you want to get in your career."

When Gardenhire climbs the dugout steps at Comerica on March 29 and hears the roar of a crowd that treats Opening Day like Michigan's unofficial holiday, he'll know what Leyland meant. And yet, they'll always be connected by an October afternoon under the roof in the Metrodome, nearly a decade earlier.

* * *

The 2009 American League Central Division tiebreaker was technically an extra regular-season game, tacked onto the schedule to decide the division, but it was essentially a winner-take-all playoff. It was the culmination of a crazy race. Detroit led by seven games on Labor Day, but Minnesota closed in over the next four weeks until drawing even on the final weekend.

"You have that feeling, every once in a while, where every day you get to the park you think you're going to win," Gardenhire said. "And we had that feeling towards the end. We just weren't going to be denied. You just felt it."

For Tigers fans, it rekindled bad memories of 2006, when the Twins rallied from nine games down in August to overtake them in the regular-season finale and relegate Detroit to the Wild Card. The Tigers went to the World Series that year, while the Twins were swept out of the Division Series, but Detroit fans never forgot the collapse.

Video: Gardenhire on balancing different managing styles

Leyland and Gardenhire knew each other before that year, having met at a fantasy camp when Leyland was managing the Pirates. That was Gardenhire's first chance to hear Leyland sing. But as opponents, Leyland picked up a new respect for Gardenhire, watching how he ran his team.

"I'd see Gardy out there at batting practice, talking to the infielders or something. He was a very thorough guy," Leyland said. "I was always very impressed with the way he handled himself, handled his team. He's one of those guys you manage against and all of a sudden he does stuff to get your attention, the way he handles stuff, things that stood out."

Leyland didn't have to do anything to draw Gardenhire's attention, just be himself.

"I just eyeballed him in the dugout. He was so intense," Gardenhire said. "I loved the way he walked to the mound. He had the stride out there. More than the game and everything, he just didn't miss much.

"But it was before the game walking out behind home plate, Leyland would put his arm around us. We had some of the best conversations. He was like Tom Kelly to me, one of those mentors. He would ask me questions, what do you think about this or that."

He respected Gardenhire enough that he invited him onto his coaching staff for the 2007 All-Star Game; Gardenhire accepted it for the chance to watch Leyland work up close.

"That would be more entertainment than I could take," Gardenhire said.

Video: Intentional Talk on Gardenhire being hired by Tigers

With the division title on the line that day in 2009, however, there was no time for friendly conversation. The weather in Minneapolis was miserable, one of the rare good days for a baseball game indoors. It was warm in the Metrodome, and with a sellout crowd on short notice, it was loud.

* * *

Neither team had the chance to line up their rotations. Since Justin Verlander pitched two days earlier, the Tigers' hopes rested on 20-year-old rookie Rick Porcello opposite Twins 15-game winner Scott Baker. Porcello fell an out shy of a quality start, but left with a lead after 5 2/3 innings and eight strikeouts. Miguel Cabrera's two-run homer put the Tigers in command in the third inning, but the Twins chipped away until Orlando Cabrera's two-run homer off Zach Miner put Minnesota ahead in the seventh.

Two pitches into the eighth, Magglio Ordonez hit a solo homer to tie it. That's where it stayed into extra innings, setting up Leyland and Gardenhire to match wits.

"It was obviously one of the greatest games I was ever involved in," Leyland said. "It was kind of a funny game. They had a chance. We had a chance. They had a chance."

The managerial moves comprised a game in itself. Twins closer Joe Nathan entered in a tie game and took it to extras by recording five outs, capped by a line-drive double play with the go-ahead run on third. Tigers counterpart Fernando Rodney entered with the potential winning run in scoring position in the ninth and pitched into the 12th, throwing 48 pitches.

"I can remember Fernando Rodney saying, 'I'm good, I'm good.' What a trooper and a warrior he was," Leyland said.

Video: Allen discusses Gardenhire using analytics as manager

Yet for these managers, it was fitting that role players would determine their fate. Don Kelly, a September callup who became a Tigers fan favorite two years later, pinch-ran in the 10th and scored from first base on a Brandon Inge double to put the Tigers ahead. Matt Tolbert, a light-hitting rookie, tied the game with a single in the bottom half. Alexi Casilla, a pinch-runner, nearly ended it a few pitches later, tagging up on a fly ball to left, but Ryan Raburn threw him out at the plate.

"We were all screaming, 'Tag! Tag! Tag!' Raburn threw a stinking pellet and got him," Gardenhire recalled. "We thought the game was over."

Both managers remember the Bobby Keppel pitch that brushed Inge's jersey but didn't bounce off him with the bases loaded in the 12th inning. With no replay system, there was no way to review it, denying Inge a go-ahead hit-by-pitch.

Both, too, remember Casilla coming back up in the bottom of the 12th inning and winning it with a single.

"That was some sort of baseball game," Gardenhire said. "That had everything. I know we were exhausted, and we won. I was out of gas, and we had to play the next night in New York."

By the time the four-hour, 37-minute marathon was over, whoever won was doomed in the American League Division Series. Whoever lost would feel worse. Those emotions aside, it was an amazing final baseball game in the Metrodome.

Video: Oct. 6, 2009, Twins win No. 163

Leyland and the Tigers were crushed, and the trades that followed led to a mini-rebuild in 2010, while the Twins won another division title. Those deals set up the Tigers' run of four straight division titles as the Twins peeled off. Now, it's Gardenhire's challenge to try to lead the Tigers to that path again.

"I think Gardy's going to be absolutely great for Detroit. I don't think there's any question about it," Leyland said. "I think he's really going to be a big hit in Detroit. I think he understands the challenge ahead of him."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

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