You have to wonder what the big shots who want to abolish the Minnesota Twins were thinking after the team started the season 5-1. But there’s little doubt what the Minnesota players were thinking: “Hey, Bud, contract this!”
The team’s quick start hinted at what would be the ultimate prank on commissioner Bud Selig: a division title for a team targeted for extinction. It’s a long shot, but the Twins have the perfect person to pull it off: rookie manager Ron Gardenhire, an ex-Met infielder with vast experience in talking trash and backing it up.
A utility infielder for the Mets from 1981 to 1985, Gardenhire was a popular overachiever, but he hardly distinguished himself on the field. He played in 285 career games, hit .232, had a mediocre .958 fielding percentage, and was constantly plagued by hamstring problems.
All that time on the D.L., however, gave Gardenhire ample opportunity to establish his own reign of terror as a practical joker whose repertoire included locker trashing. A favorite target was second baseman Wally Backman.
In fact, their trash-as-trash-can feud went on after Gardenhire was shipped to the Twins in 1986.
During spring training in 1988, Gardenhire reportedly visited the Mets’ camp in Port St. Lucie and ransacked Backman’s locker while Backman played in a split-squad game in West Palm Beach. Adding insult to injury, that was also the day Backman learned Tim Teufel had won the second-base job.
Backman is said to have gotten even that June, though, driving from Chicago, where the Mets were playing, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Gardenhire was managing, to trash Gardenhire’s office.
“I got into everything,” Backman reportedly said at the time. “Even his records. It probably took him three hours just to sort those. It was so bad that when he walked in, he had no place to walk. I think he paid the clubhouse kid $10 to clean it up, but I already had paid the kid $20 not to.”
It’s unclear whether Gardenhire ever got even with Backman, even though Backman ended up playing with the Twins the next season. What is certain is that Gardenhire now has his sights set on trashing something bigger: Major League Baseball’s plans to contract his team. And this one’s not for fun. This one’s personal.
“I lived in Minnesota all winter,” says Gardenhire. “I had to follow [contraction] every day, because it was in the papers, and the [media] trucks were in my front yard all the time. So I listened to everything every day.” Included in his viewing was the well-publicized face-off in front of Congress between Selig and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura.
“We all know our governor,” says Gardenhire. “He’s a pretty gung ho type guy, and that’s what you expect out of him. Mr. Selig has his job to do, and he’s trying to do it. It was a pretty good battle on TV, as far as I was concerned.”
Meanwhile, MLB officials already seem to be trying to trash the Twins. They made Minnesota open the 2002 season with 10 consecutive road games. The Twins responded by sweeping Kansas City and taking three of four in Toronto, before being swept by the Indians and coming home 5-5. But breaking even on that murderous road trip still isn’t a bad start.
The team’s general manager, Terry Ryan, credits Gardenhire, a longtime assistant to legendary Minnesota manager Tom Kelly and a successful minor league manager, for the Twins’ spirited jump out of the gate in the face of constant chatter about their being abolished. “We took on his identity,” Ryan says of the fiery, funny Gardenhire.
Centerfielder Torii Hunter, one of the team’s young stars, says, “Gardy is a laid-back manager, always cracking jokes. You laugh, and you want to go out and play hard for him.”
And Hunter adds that the players are willing accomplices to Gardenhire’s master plan to have the last laugh on MLB. Gardenhire uses the contraction talk to stir up the team.
“He tells us to take the good out of it: ‘Go out there and try to win the division and show those people.’ That’s something we can do.”
While no one’s really expecting the Twins to win it all, it would be fun to watch Selig hand the World Series trophy to victorious Minnesotans, especially in the Metrodome. The tension in that locker room would rival that of the Super Bowl XV ceremony, when NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had to hand over the trophy to his nemesis, Raider owner Al Davis.
Just in case Gardenhire can’t wait till October to put one over on MLB, though, Selig might want to beef up security around his midtown office when the Twins come to New York next month.