Ron Gardenhire stunned the baseball world with the sudden announcement of his retirement from managing the Tigers on Saturday evening. The ripple of that news hit especially hard across Twins Territory.
During Gardenhire's nearly three decades in the Twins' organization, he cemented his status in franchise history with his role as third-base coach on the 1991 World Series championship team and his leadership of the team to six American League Central titles and a berth in the 2002 AL Championship Series as part of his decorated 13-year stint as manager of the club.
A generation of young Twins fans grew up watching Gardenhire at the helm of rosters loaded with countless fan favorites at the Metrodome, from Johan Santana to Joe Mauer to Torii Hunter. Gardenhire's "Piranhas" ignited fierce rivalries in the division and played into some of the club's biggest moments like the Game 163 AL Central tiebreaker in 2009.
On Saturday, Gardenhire's 16-year managerial legacy came to a close following three seasons in Detroit, as he cited health concerns among the reasons for immediately stepping down from his post.
"This is a bittersweet day for myself and my family," Gardenhire wrote in a statement. "I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the countless players and coaches that I’ve had the honor of working alongside for the last 16 seasons as manager. I’d also like to thank the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins for giving me the privilege of leading their clubhouses. While I’m stepping away from managing, I’ll be watching this group of Tigers closely in the next few years. There’s a lot of talent on this team, and a lot coming through the farm system. Tigers fans are going to enjoy the exciting times on the horizon."
Gardenhire's 1,068 wins as Twins manager rank second in franchise history to Tom Kelly, under whom he developed as a coach before taking over the reins of a talented team in 2002. Gardenhire was the first manager in MLB history to take his team to the postseason in six of his first nine seasons, and he was the fourth to begin his career with three consecutive first-place finishes.
Gardenhire finished his career with a 1,200-1,280 record as a manager, ranking him 46th in wins in MLB history and fifth among active managers behind Dusty Baker, Terry Francona, Joe Maddon and Bob Melvin.
"We’re all going to miss him dearly at the ballpark," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "We still expect to see him and we hope we still get a chance to spend time with him, because he is truly a guy you never forget being around. He’s got a personality and a baseball sense about him that is pretty unique. We love him. Everyone in the game is thinking about him right now."
In Twins Territory, Gardenhire was beloved for not only his success on the field, but also for his easy connection with the players, staff members and coaches around him in the Twins' clubhouse. During games, he was never afraid to defend his side in frequent arguments with umpiring crews around the league, endearing himself to fans with his energy and fire.
"Gardy’s a really special guy, a guy that every person in the game that’s been around him, from everything I know, all of his players, all of his staff, whether you’re on the other team, you work in the game in different spots, he’s just a guy that stands out as being a guy you love being around," Baldelli said. "I don’t know anyone that wouldn’t agree with that."
Twins Hall of Famer Justin Morneau certainly agrees.
"I came up as a 22-year-old," said Morneau, who played 11 of his 14 MLB seasons under Gardenhire in Minnesota. "He was the manager. He looked out for me. He treated me like a son. He was a guy who always wanted the best for his players. He would go to bat for his players. He was a players’ manager. And he had such a good feel of, once or twice a year, if the effort wasn’t good enough, come in and yell and blow up the room and let everybody know that effort is expected and focus is expected."
It's no wonder Gardenhire finished his career with 84 career ejections, the seventh-most in MLB history. Seventy-one of them came in a Twins uniform.
Through all that time, Gardenhire showed an ability to endure and adapt as the game rapidly changed around him through nearly two decades in the manager's office. His old-school, defensive, small-ball-oriented philosophy that brought the Twins success in the 2000s is now mostly a relic of the past, but his young 2020 Tigers team surprised many with their success early in the season following an extended rebuild.
"His willingness to adapt, whether it was shifts or a different approach at the plate or whatever it was, maybe being able to have his impact on the game through hit-and-runs and stolen bases and all that stuff," Morneau said. "He was willing to change and do what was necessary to evolve and get the most out of his teams and his players. You can see them turning the corner, you can see his fingerprints on that club, and if that club turns into a winning club next year or the year after, you know he’s had an impact on those guys who’re still there once he’s gone."
One thing is clear; Gardenhire's impact on the game will be missed by all.
"Baseball has always been better with Ron Gardenhire part of it," Twins president Dave St. Peter wrote in a tweet. "His legacy is highlighted by the hugely positive impact he made on players and staff. I will always remember his authentic connection to the fans. The Gardenhire family will always be part of the Twins family."
"Whether this is it for him or not in the game of baseball, the game of baseball is better when he’s involved," Morneau said. "You just hope that he’s in good health. That’s the first thing you hope. And if this is it for him in the game of baseball, hopefully he’s able to go around on his pontoon and enjoy what he’s got going forward, and maybe watch his son do what he did one day."