Detroit Free Press
Published 8:58 PM EDT May 26, 2019
QUEENS, N.Y. — Ron Gardenhire used to roam these parts, across the street from Citi Field, where circus tents fill the space that used to be Shea Stadium.
“My hamstrings are somewhere around here,’ he said. “And my groin. My groin was in left field.”
Thirty-three years ago, the Detroit Tigers’ veteran manager last put on a New York Mets uniform. It was a mistake — the team erred in finalizing their roster before spring training and had to carry the injured infielder to start the regular season — and he went out and sat in the bullpen.
“I told (manager) Davey Johnson, ‘I will never go in the game, even if you try to put me in the game,” Gardenhire said.
He was on the 1986 Mets’ roster for two games, didn’t play in either, and they were his last two as a player in the major leagues. In five seasons, Gardenhire — who often cracks fun at his playing career by calling himself a “futility player” — hit .232 with four home runs in 285 games.
“What was I like?” he said. “When I was healthy, I was a very aggressive type of guy.”
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In recollecting his playing career — he played in the majors with just the Mets — Gardenhire said returning to Queens is always special, even if its a different stadium.
There weren’t a lot of highlights in his career — he started 122 games at shortstop for New York in 1982 and played sparingly during his other four seasons — but two came to mind.
The first was his first career home run, hit off Ray Burris at Olympic Stadium in Montreal on June 29, 1982.
“Hanging slider,” Gardenhire said. “But what I remember most was Ellis Valentine told me, ‘You still haven’t hit one in the United States.’ That was his line to me. ‘You still haven’t hit one in the US.’ My first major league homer. I’ll never forget that line. That’s a good line.”
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The second was a painful memory, one which slowly but surely sent him on a path back to the majors as a manager.
“In 1984, I was playing my best baseball,” Gardenhire said. “Playing every day and doing really well and then I hit a ball in the gap in Cincinnati, on the Astroturf off Mario Soto, and it actually brought my average up from .210 to .242 or almost .250. I hit a gapper off Soto and I blew my hammy out.”
It was Gardenhire’s first hurt hamstring.
“I kind of reached for the bag, I was looking at the ball seeing if it was getting by him and I kind of remember looking over and then stretching my toe out to make sure I hit first base and when I did, I got it right here. Shot like a cannon. Went down, not good.”
The hamstring injuries would continue — “After that, it was all hamstrings,” he said — and limit his stays in the major leagues. In September 1985, with the Mets fighting for the NL East title, Gardenhire blew his groin out.
“I blew it out pretty good there,” he said. “I got a needle stuck in my groin because it was playoff time so instead of going on the DL, put a cortisone shot and taped it up.”
He and longtime former manager Larry Bowa were the Mets’ utility men.
“We both used to sit on the bench and argue who was going in,” Gardenhire said. “I said, ‘Larry, I can move almost as much as you can.’ ”
With the Mets, Gardenhire played with other future managers, like Bowa, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and Giants manager Bruce Bochy. They had more playing success in the majors, and after the Mets traded Gardenhire to the Minnesota Twins in 1987, he soon was on the managerial track.
After deciding he was going to retire following his 1987 season with the Triple-A Portland Beavers — “The funnest year I’ve ever had in baseball and the most losses you’ve ever been a part of,” he said — the Twins wanted him to manage.
“I said, ‘Nope, I’ll do infield but I won’t manage,’” Gardenhire said. “That didn’t work out too well.”
Gardenhire is an infield nut. He likes teaching infield defense more than anything else. So the Twins sent him to the instructional league after the season, where he could watch over infielders and have a ball.
But when he arrived to spring training the next year, the Twins persisted.
“We had a work meeting and they came and told me, ‘You’re going to manage,’” he said.
“I don’t want to manage,” Gardenhire said.
“You’re going to manage,” Twins management said. “We know you’re a manager.”
So that season, less than a year after retiring from playing in the most unceremonious of ways, Gardenhire’s managerial career began at Class A in Kenosha, Wisc. He is now in his 15th season as a manager in the majors.
He hung up his spikes for good on the last day of the 1987 season with Portland. They were on the road in Edmonton, him and the Beavers’ pitching coach, and the Twins — who would go one to beat the Tigers in the ALCS and the Cardinals in the World Series — had just announced their September call-ups.
“I said, ‘How can they not call me up from this group?’ ” he said. “I know I can go up there and help those guys — which I really couldn’t — and the old man goes, ‘Because you’re horse (crap)! You’re horse (crap)!’ Well, what do you really think?”
Contact Anthony Fenech at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.