OK, so, it's happening again ... every year I feel more and more certain that there has to be something I'm missing. I had a long talk with someone close to the Minnesota Twins ... this someone is the latest in a long series of people who want me to understand just how wrong I am about Ron Gardenhire.
A little history: In 2008, I wrote a series of columns stating what I believe -- that Ron Gardenhire is the best manager in baseball. This led more than a few people to believe that I was completely off my rocker and many of those people were Minnesota Twins fans who watched the man manage every single day and, as such, could recite hundreds and hundreds of reasons why Gardenhire was, in fact, a dreadful manager.
That's a wide gap -- best in the game (me) to dreadful (most of the people writing in). The 2008 Twins, despite hitting the fewest home runs in the league (and having the 10th best slugging percentage) and having a mediocre pitching staff somehow won 88 games and forced a one-game playoff with Chicago, which they lost 1-0. I thought it was another pretty impressive managerial run for a guy who had led his Twins to the playoffs in four of his first six years as manager. Others thought it was another lousy managing job.
And ... the anti-Gardy crowd was overpowering. They bludgeoned me with stories of crazy lineup moves and bizarre bullpen maneuvers and folksy Gardy quotes that suggested he was at least Cardinal in the Roman Church of Grit. OK, I conceded the points, at least somewhat. I conceded that if Gardy was my team's manager and I had to watch him every day, that I might not be the world's No. 1 Gardy fan ... but I don't watch him every day, and I am the world's No. 1 Gardy fan, and I still didn't get why people did not give Gardy more credit for the Twins success.
Then came 2009. The Twins were without MVP Joe Mauer for the first month. They were without the 2006 MVP Justin Morneau for the last month. Their starting pitching was brutal, they were unsettled at numerous positions, they were six games under .500 in mid-August. And I heard from the Gardy people, doing their Billy Crystal as Edward G. Robinson impressions ("Where's your Messiah now!"). Only then, the Twins won 21 of their last 35 (and 17 of their last 21) and they chased down the fading Tigers and the won the division again, Gardenhire's fifth division championship.
And I again wrote the Gardenhire is a genius thing because, dammit, I'm nothing if not predictable. And again I got hit with the anti-Gardy denials -- he didn't do anything, the Tigers folded, anyone could manage the Twins, the UNDERachieved, he cost his team a dozen games with stupid maneuvers on and on and on. It's amazing. The guy could build Hoover Dam and people would say he should have built it bigger. The Twins did lose three straight to the Yankees in the playoffs, which if I was reading the response correctly demonstrated again the point of Gardy's incompetence (and apparently did not demonstrate the the point that the Yankees had a payroll three times larger). And once again I found myself just shaking my head and wondering why it seemed so lonely on "Gardy is Awesome" Island.
Then came 2010. Now I should point out here that part of the reason I've been so enthralled with Gardy is that I don't think the Twins have been all that talented. Payroll isn't everything, but it's probably telling that in the first eight years that Ron Gardenhire managed the Twins, they never had a payroll in the top half of baseball. Not once. They have only once had the highest payroll in their own relatively low-spending division. Here is a look at the Twins payroll rankings:
2009: 24th (lowest in AL Central)
2008: 25th (lowest in AL Central)
2007: 18th (3rd in AL Central)
2006: 19th (3rd in AL Central)
2005: 20th (3rd in AL Central)
2004: 19th (2nd in AL Central)
2003: 18th (1st in AL Central)
2002: 27th (lowest in AL Central)
OK, so with those payrolls, the guy took his team to the playoffs five times. I mean, that's SOMETHING isn't it? Well, this year, something changed. The Twins payroll took a huge jump -- they are actually 10th in the league in payroll (though still only third in the AL Central, behind Chicago and Detroit -- yes three of this year's top 10 payrolls are in the American League Central). And the payroll should go up quite a bit next year when Joe Mauer's $23 million per year deal kicks in.
OK, so where did that extra money go for the Twins?
1. Mauer's salary jumped $2 million.
2. Justin Morneau's salary jumped $3.5 million.
3. Michael Cuddyer's salary jumped almost $2 million.
4. They signed Carl Pavano for $7 million.
5. They signed J.J. Hardy for $5.1 million.
6. They signed Orlando Hudson for $5 million.
7. They signed Jim Thome for $1.5 million plus incentives.
8. Various raises to players like Jason Kubel, Franscisco Liriano, etc.
9. They are paying Joe Nathan $11.25 million -- this is the same as last year, so that's not why the payroll went up. But the point is I believe only the Yankees in the American League pay more for their closer.
I go through all that to show you that this year -- for the first time in a very long time, I think -- the Twins put some financial backing behind their efforts to win. They have a new stadium now, so I'm sure that helped. They also have perhaps the single most valuable property in baseball in Joe Mauer, and they re-signed him. For the first time in my mind they gave Gardy a team that is NOT small market, a team that has been given the balance sheet talent to win games and playoff series. Of the American League playoff teams only the Yankees (or, in a miracle finish, the Red Sox) have a higher payroll than Minnesota.
So this year's different. Only then, it wasn't so different. During spring training Nathan was lost for the season. How valuable is a closer? It's a topic we've discussed here more than once ... and I don't know if we came to a consensus. But it's fair to say that $11.25 million of that payroll was worthless for 2010, and a lot of people around the game thought that Nathan's injury could be a death blow to the Twins chances.
And as if to prove the point, the Twins were a blah 45-42 on July 10. And it was right around then (July 7 to be precise) that they lost Justin Morneau, who had a strong argument as American League MVP when he suffered a concussion. He has not played a single game since then.
And where are the Twins right now? Exactly: First place, the American League Central is all sewn up, the Twins are only a half game behind Tampa Bay for the best record in all of baseball. They are 43-16 since hitting that low point -- staggeringly awesome baseball. Gardenhire is about to take the Twins to the playoffs for the sixth time.
And, no, I don't know if the Twins will do any better this time around -- the Twins under Gardy have lost their last nine playoff games and have only won one playoff series -- but on paper, to me, they at least seem in better playoff shape. They have the ace -- Francisco Liriano has pitched as well this year as any pitcher in the league. They get on-base (second in OBP) and are fourth in the league in runs. Their bullpen, even without Nathan and with a couple of closers through the season, has been strong. We'll see.
But I guess my point remains ... I think Ron Gardenhire is the best manager in baseball. I think that not based on what we see but what we can't see. I base this not on what I think a manager should do but on success. I base this not on individual moves but on the basis that the Twins are there on top one more time.
That someone close to the Twins -- he would know more about this than I do. And I respect his opinion. And he insists that the Twins win DESPITE Gardy not BECAUSE of Gardy. And you know what? It could be true.
But you know what else? They sure do keep on winning despite him. So if nothing else, Gardy is the best I've ever seen at minimizing the damage he can cause and keeping his own deficiencies from ruining the story. It's a lesson all of us could probably learn.