MINNEAPOLIS -- For the St. Paul Saints, the 2021 season will mark a new beginning in the history of the longtime independent franchise. For Triple-A manager Toby Gardenhire, it will mark a homecoming.
Gardenhire was named the skipper for the Twins' new Triple-A affiliate in St. Paul on Tuesday as part of the organization's announcement of the staffing at its Minor League affiliates. It's going to be a unique position, considering the Saints' extreme geographic proximity to the Twins and the quality of prospects expected to pass through St. Paul this year, made all the more special by his return home as part of the organization he has known for nearly his whole life.
"Getting a chance to coach with the Twins was kind of a dream, too, so every level that I’ve been able to go up has just been a really cool experience for me," Gardenhire said. "Everything’s different. It’s a lot of fun, and I just feel very lucky to be where I’m at with the Twins organization and then getting the chance to come to St. Paul was just the icing on the cake for me."
Now 38 years old, Gardenhire remembers getting called into Twins manager Tom Kelly's office when he was 10 -- while his father, longtime Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire, worked as third-base coach -- and being asked to write out the lineup card for that day, before TK said it was no good and made a show of tearing up the piece of paper. Later, as a Minor Leaguer in the organization, he remembered being asked to help with catchers' signs and getting heckled during Spring Training for being on the team managed by his father.
"Hey, what is this, Bring Your Kid to Work Day?" fans would yell. "Hey, is this an early Christmas present or what?"
"We used to joke that one day, I was going to show up to Spring Training and my locker was going to cleaned out, but they were going to have a pair of turfs and a fungo [bat] in my locker, because I was going to end up being a coach," Gardenhire said. "Stuff like that. I always knew I was going to coach."
Gardenhire never did make it to the Majors after playing in the organization from 2005-11, but as those earlier experiences might have hinted, perhaps he was always being groomed to earn another promotion to Triple-A as a manager. Following a pair of seasons as skipper of then-Class A Cedar Rapids and Class A Advanced Fort Myers, he was supposed to make his Triple-A managerial debut in '20 with the Rochester Red Wings before the Minor League season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, Gardenhire began the season at the club's facility in Fort Myers, Fla., working with some of the Major League players who remained. He traveled to the Twin Cities for the Summer Camp period, worked with the players at the alternate training site and eventually migrated to the big league side a few weeks before the start of the playoffs.
Fortunately, that lost Minor League season might actually have helped ease him into his 2021 work environment. All that time spent around Rocco Baldelli and the Major League coaching staff helped forge relationships that will undoubtedly grow tighter in '21, when Twins leadership has noted that there will likely be a collaborative relationship between the Twins' and Saints' staffs.
It also helps that he's no stranger to the players. Triple-A St. Paul will be a particularly important developmental stop this year because the top five prospects in the organization -- shortstop Royce Lewis, outfielder Alex Kirilloff, outfielder Trevor Larnach and right-handers Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran -- could all play there in 2021 as they transition to becoming franchise cornerstones of the future.
One advantage for Gardenhire is that his rise through the system actually mirrors that of all five prospects, and he managed all of them at either Cedar Rapids or Fort Myers in 2018 and '19. In fact, Kirilloff is the only player of the five who wasn't managed by Gardenhire in both seasons, having made the jump to then-Double-A Pensacola in '19.
"I’ve actually been pretty lucky with the guys that I’ve had going up through the organization," Gardenhire said. "I’ve had some pretty cool prospects for the last few years and they just keep on moving up, and I’ve been lucky to go up with them.
"It may be a team that’s going to be able to go up and win a World Series. We’re going to try to do that and get these guys to the big leagues so they can help the big league club at the same time."
As a graduate of Roseville Area High School, Gardenhire remembered getting crushed by Joe Mauer's Cretin-Derham Hall teams in conference tournaments at Midway Stadium, the former home of the Saints. He remembered, too, seeing old Minor League teammates and students he coached in college arrive in St. Paul to play for the Saints.
All these years later, there's a different stadium, different affiliation and a different role -- but Toby Gardenhire is back.
"To me, it's a full circle-type thing, because I feel like I've always kind of been associated with the Saints and always got a chance to be around them," Gardenhire said. "It's a really neat thing for me to get back in the ballpark up in St. Paul."