Twins camp report: Gardenhire looks to recapture old Minnesota magic

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Don't tell this to umpires who have ejected him 62 times over the past 11 summers, but they don't make managers any more laid back than Ron Gardenhire.

Give him a beer and a bowling league over a trendy cocktail and a hip nightclub any day of the week. For the longest time, the Zac Brown Band's Chicken Fried was the ringtone on his cell phone. A pair of jeans that fit just right.


So, as he enters the most unsettled season of his career, storm clouds on the horizon, debris from the wreckage of a 96-loss season behind him, you can't help but look for a few things that are no longer fitting just right.

Is that stress lining the corners of his eyes as he talks with former manager Tom Kelly on one of the back fields?

Nope. Sunblock.

Is that an edge in his voice as he addresses a young infielder?

Nope. Hunger.

Following an incredibly successful run during which he has led the Twins to six AL Central titles in 11 seasons, Gardenhire is entering the final season of his contract in 2013.

Following two incredibly disappointing seasons in which Gardenhire's Twins have lost a combined 195 games, general manager Terry Ryan overhauled his coaching staff and effectively put the manager on double-secret probation.

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"It is what it is," Gardenhire said after devouring a midday salad at his desk. "TK went with one-year contracts every year while he was here.

"That's not even in my thought process. I laugh when it comes up.

"A manager always is on a one-year contract."

This year, around the majors, especially.

Gardenhire is one of nine skippers working the high wire without a net in 2013. Right there alongside Joe Girardi (Yankees), Jim Leyland (Tigers), Charlie Manuel (Phillies), Don Mattingly (Dodgers), Terry Collins (Mets), Ned Yost (Royals), Eric Wedge (Mariners) and Walt Weiss (Rockies).

Change is as heartburn-inducing for this organization as digesting a couple of those deep-fried Snickers bars at the state fair. The Twins have had just two managers, Kelly and Gardenhire, since 1986.

If Gardenhire and, yes, Ryan, have their way, it'll still be two managers in 28 years come 2014.

But to get to that point, Ryan felt like things needed to be different. And so, in moves that sent shock waves well beyond Minnesota, he fired three of Gardenhire's long-time coaches last October: Bench coach Steve Liddle, first-base coach Jerry White and bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, whose 32 consecutive seasons were the most of any coach in baseball.

"We made some changes, and that seems to be the thing people are concerned about because we've rarely done that," Ryan said. "It was the first time in a long, long time that we made a couple of changes.

"I'm not proud of that. If we had had success, we wouldn't have had to do it. These are people who were close to the organization, people who are good friends of Gardy and also good friends of mine.

"But we've got to get this thing back going in the right direction."

Three years ago, the Gardenhire-led Twins christened beautiful new Target Field with a 94-68 steamrolling of the AL Central. It was the Twins' third division title in five seasons.

Gardenhire was voted the AL Manager of the Year and was honored by the state of Minnesota with Ron Gardenhire Day on Nov. 22, 2010.

Those close to him say the changes have been rough on him but that he understands.

Extend the changes up to the front office, where Ryan replaced Bill Smith as GM following the 2011 season, and, through the point of the coaching staff shuffle last October, the Twins saw 27 people leave the organization -- either fired or of their own accord -- over a 24-month period.

No question, the move from the Metrodome to Target Field has tightened the screws, like a mom-and-pop shop selling to a giant conglomerate. There are more financial pressures. The player payroll swelled to $94 million last year. The Twins are paying Joe Mauer $184 million over eight years.

And during a second-consecutive clunker of a season last summer, Target Field attendance plummeted by nearly 400,000.

You don't need a calculus degree to add up those numbers.

"We still are going to make wise baseball decisions," Ryan said. "We've got more revenue. We have a tremendous fan base. There is a lot of interest in the organization, which is good.

"We need to do a better job with baseball decisions, no matter where we're playing."

Pitching injuries and underperformance decimated last year's staff, which resulted in a rotation that threw fewer innings than 28 other clubs. Only the Rockies' staff threw fewer innings.

To that end, Ryan signed veterans Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey to help stabilize things until the next wave of young starters is ready. He acquired Vance Worley from the Phillies.

Look at this year's club, and it's hard to see how things can't be better.

But look at the Tigers and White Sox, and even the Indians and Royals, and it's hard to see how the Twins can avoid a third consecutive last-place finish in the AL Central.

There is a new energy here sparked not only by a flock of prospects seeing opportunity but also by the reshaped coaching staff. Additions Terry Steinbach (bench coach), Tom Brunansky (hitting coach) and Bobby Cuellar (bullpen coach) are getting rave reviews.

"Bruno is fantastic," Gardenhire said. "Steiny is fantastic. Cuellar is fantastic. That part is easy.

"I still miss my friends. But the new people we brought in here are great. We're having a lot of fun."

It isn't quite clear what, exactly, will get Gardenhire an extension. Forward motion would be the reasonable expectation. It isn't reasonable to expect to turn 96 losses into another division title overnight.

Five miles up Daniels Parkway here, at the spring headquarters of the Boston Red Sox, a guy who grew up under Kelly and Gardenhire knows the cost of change all too well.

"Tito [Terry Francona] won two World Series, and he only managed here for eight years," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, the former Twin. "That tells you how this business goes.

"Then Tito left, and things went from OK to worse in about a year."

Ortiz pauses, pondering what used to be in Boston.

"It's hard to dictate how things are going to go when you get a new guy," he said.

Under a bright spring sun, the men who ultimately will help decide Gardenhire's future work their way toward what still could be in Minnesota.

"There's nobody who has more faith in Ron than I do," Ryan said. "It will take care of itself.

"Everything that you look for in a manager, Ron possesses. There's no doubt. But we've had two tough years, and I can't neglect that.

"It's an organizational fault. It's not Ron's fault. I'm being as honest as I can be. I'm not hiding it, and neither is he. He's been with us a long time. Everything should work out well.

"He has a lot of faith in this organization, and this organization has a lot of faith in him. We just need to get this thing going in the right direction."

Downstairs in the spring office he has occupied since 2002, Gardenhire changes into a short-sleeve shirt, joking that he needs to work on his tan, preparing for another afternoon in the Grapefruit League.

Like a favorite pair of jeans, on this day, his Twins jersey still fits just right.

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