Willmar Stingers: Gardy set to appear in Willmar

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Tom Elliott, West Central Tribune, Willmar, Minn.
·6 min read
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May 5—After getting off the golf course, Ron Gardenhire spent the afternoon trying to repair an area on his roof ravaged by woodpeckers.

"Dang woodpeckers," Gardenhire said. "This is what you do when you're retired."

And, you make appearances. And then you donate the appearance fee to charity.

That's what will bring the former Minnesota Twins manager to Willmar.

Gardenhire, 63, is scheduled to throw out the first pitch on Wednesday, June 2, when the Willmar Stingers have their Northwoods League home opener against the Eau Claire Express.

"It should be a good time," Gardenhire said by phone from his Florida home. "I'm looking forward to it. I'll get to see some baseball, some young players."

Coming to Willmar reminds Gardenhire, the former Twins manager, of his days with the annual Twins Caravan. Each winter, the Twins send groups of players and team personnel across the midwest to meet with fans as part of a goodwill tour, getting everyone fired up about the coming season.

"It reminds me a lot of the Twins Caravan," he said of his schedule of Northwoods League appearances, which include St. Cloud and Mankato. "We'd go to North Dakota, South Dakota, all over Minnesota, Iowa and some of Wisconsin.

"You know what? It was fun. You sign some autographs and you talk baseball."

It also keeps Gardenhire connected to a game he has been involved with since 1979, when he was a sixth-round draft pick of the New York Mets.

"I'd like to give back to baseball," he said. "Seeing fans, meeting people, it's all good."

Northwoods connection

Gardenhire has some experience with the Northwoods League ... as a proud parent. His son Toby Gardenhire played three seasons with the Rochester Honkers.

"I loved the Northwoods League," said Toby Gardenhire, now the manager of the St. Paul Saints, the Twins' triple-A affiliate after nearly 30 years as an independent team. "I had a blast.

"It gets you ready for pro ball. Everything is just like pro ball, from the hotels and the bus travel to playing ball everyday."

Dad said he can remember going to Brainerd to watch Toby play. Like his father, Toby was a middle infielder who played junior college ball before transferring to a major program. For Toby, that was University of Illinois. For Ron, it was the University of Texas.

Toby got drafted by the Twins and made it as far as Triple-A. Ron played five seasons with the Mets before getting traded to Minnesota and spending a season in the minors.

Managing success

Both have made more impressive impressions as managers/coaches. For Ron, it was his 13-year stretch as Twins manager, specifically his nine years from 2002-2010, that are as good as any since the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1961.

The Twins won division championships in '02, '03, '04, '06, '09 and '10. They even won a playoff series in '02, advancing to the American League Championship Series after beating the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS.

"That was the Moneyball outfit," Gardenhire said. "It's pretty cool."

Gardenhire remembers sending pitching coach Rick Anderson to the mound in the bottom of the ninth to talk to stopper Eddie Guardado, who was fully aware of the importance of the moment.

"He told (Anderson), 'I can't spit,'" Gardenhire said.

The Twins then lost to the eventual World Champion Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the ALCS.

It was a great run, arguably better than the ones made by the Twins World Series teams of 1987 and '91 and the '65 Twins World Series squad or the playoff teams in 1969 and '70.

Gardenhire's regret? "We didn't win a World Series," he said.

There were plenty of other highlights, including being a coach for several Major League All-Star teams.

The biggest? "Getting to manage the Minnesota Twins," he said. "I'm thankful for the opportunity (general manager) Terry Ryan gave me to what the Pohlads (the owners) have done for me, you just don't get any better."

Gardenhire left the Twins after four straight losing seasons in 2013. He took some time off, then became the bench coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks under manager Torey Lovullo. There was a health scare. Gardenhire was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He recovered and went back to coaching.

The Tigers, in the midst of a huge rebuilding effort, hired Gardenhire to manage in 2018. He left with 10 games remaining in the shortened 2020 season, suffering from anxiety amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"He's doing fine, 100%," Toby Gardenhire said by phone from St. Paul. "He's doing well.

"It was more of an anxiety about COVID and how it affected his team than anything.

"It's changed everything. It made it hard to work just like everywhere else. There were so many protocols. Me as a baseball manager, you never stop thinking about it. Your anxiety level is through the roof."

These days, the anxiety is less, like what is happening to his roof because of woodpeckers or how he can't get his golf score down to where he'd like it.

He doesn't completely dismiss getting back into managing. Two of his older contemporaries, including 76-year-old Chicago White Sox manager Tony LaRussa and 71-year-old Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, are still winning games.

"I don't know what I'd say if an opening came up and they asked me to close out a season or something," Gardenhire said.

The Gardy File

Born: Oct. 24, 1957 in Butzbach, Hassen, West Germany

High school: Okmulgee High School, Okmulgee, Oklahoma

College: Paris Junior College, Paris, Texas; University of Texas, Austin, Texas.

MLB draft: Taken by the New York Mets in the sixth round of the 1979 MLB June Amateur Draft.

MLB playing career: Played shortstop, second and third base from 1981-85 with the Mets, playing in 285 games with 777 plate appearances. He had 27 doubles, three triples, four home runs, 49 RBI and 13 stolen bases, with a .232/.277/296 average/on-base/slugging percentage line (a .573 OPS). He was traded to the Minnesota Twins and spent the 1986 season with the Portland Beavers, the Twins' Triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League.

MLB coaching/managing career:

* 2002-2014 — In 13 years with the Twins, his record was 1,068-1,039 with six division championships, earning American League Manager of the Year in 2010, and finishing second in voting for that award five times and third once.

* 2017 — Bench coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

* 2018-20 — Managed the Detroit Tigers, finishing with a 132-241 record.

How to donate

What: The ALS Black Wood Blizzard Tour is former Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire's preferred charity. It's a snowmobile tour with proceeds benefiting individuals living with ALS and their families. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.

When: Feb. 3-5, 2022

Where: There's a reception Feb. 2 at the Black Woods Grill and Bar in Proctor. The ride departs the morning of Feb. 3 headed for Lake Vermilion and the Fortune Bay Resort Casino. On Feb. 4, the ride goes along the North Shore to Two Harbors. Riders return to Proctor on Feb. 5.

Registration: Required to participate. Riders must be able to raise, or donate, a minimum of $1,800. First-time riders have a one-time incentive of a minimum of $1,500.

To donate or register: Check out the website www.neversurrenderinc.org