Of the many skills and traits that would take both of them far in professional baseball, there was one important one both Ron and Toby Gardenhire admit they simply did not possess.
“I couldn’t hit my weight,” Toby would say years after retiring as a player.
“He’s like me. Unfortunately, the Gardenhires weren’t gifted with great swings,” former Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
But father and son both have sharp minds for the game. They both have what Toby describes as a “magic calm button,” an ability to become the voice of reason when things start going haywire. And they’re described by those who know them as people’s people — the type everybody wants to be around.
So when Toby, an infielder, had played out his minor league career as far as he possibly could — Triple-A, it turns out — he turned to the next best option: Coaching, a natural next step for someone who had spent his entire life around the game.
On Tuesday, Toby Gardenhire, 38, was introduced as the manager of the St. Paul Saints, their first as the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. While the younger Gardenhire never made it to the big leagues himself, he will be tasked with helping others achieve the major league dreams of their own.
One day, he may get to reach that level himself as a coach. But for now, he’s happy to be in a role where he’s helping others reach that point.
“I think that’s the goal of anybody that puts on a uniform is to get a chance to go up, coach in the big leagues or play in the big leagues. So, that’s always the goal and we’ll just keep on going,” Gardenhire said. “Whatever happens, happens. I’m pretty happy with where I am right now, so that’s pretty neat.”
A future coach
Toby Gardenhire grew up at ballparks across the country. When he was born, his father was playing for the Mets, but the real memories start kicking in after his father began his coaching career.
There was Kenosha, Wis., where former pitcher Willie Banks was among those who would send the youngster, then 6, into his father’s office to ask silly questions. There was Orlando, where Ron managed the Twins’ Double-A affiliate for two seasons, and there was the Twin Cities, where the Gardenhires found a long-term home.
Ron Gardenhire joined Tom Kelly’s coaching staff in 1991 and took over as the Twins’ manager in 2002, a job he held until 2014. He retired from managing shortly before the end of the Detroit Tigers’ season last summer.
The younger Gardenhire latched onto players such as Kirby Puckett, who treated the him “like gold,” and Chuck Knobloch, who every year gifted him a glove that he would use for his Little League games. Once, when Toby was 10, Kelly let him try his hand at managing, instructing him to write out a lineup card.
“He said it was no good and he ripped it up and threw it in the trash,” Gardenhire said.
But growing up around Kelly, around his dad, around so many other mentors and coaches helped plant the seed. Often times, he would sit outside with his dad and his dad’s friends — also coaches — watching them sip on cocktails and smoke cigars while he listened to them tell stories and talk about all challenges they had faced at the park. It was evident to many of those around him that when the day came to hang up the cleats, coaching would be next.
“We used to joke that one day I was going to show up to spring training and my locker was going to cleaned out, but they were going to have a pair of turfs and a fungo in my locker because I was going to end up being a coach,” Toby Gardenhire said.
Coaching, he said, was in his blood.
His professional baseball career, which began in 2005, ended in 2011. His coaching career started shortly after.
'His own coach'
Toby Gardenhire became the head baseball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2012. There, he did it all: Tarping the field at midnight, raking the field in the morning, laundering uniforms and, of course, coaching.
“You have (an assistant) coach or two but for the most part, especially at a small college like that, you’re the guy running the whole thing,” Ron Gardenhire said. “So, you do hotel rooms, you do everything, so he got a good handle on controlling a lot of things. … I think him running that ballclub for those years he did in Wisconsin is really instrumental in where he’s at today.”
In 2016, after the Twins had already parted ways with his father, Toby Gardenhire rejoined the organization to work with the Gulf Coast League team. He has steadily risen through the minor league ranks since then, earning each promotion he’s gotten.
As a player, Gardenhire was drafted twice by the Twins — in the 38th round in 2002 and the 41st round in 2005. Often, he’d hear taunts at spring training like, “Hey, what is this, bring your kid to work day?” and he’d do his best to brush them off.
“I tried to block it out as much as I could because in the end, whether I would have got signed or not if my dad wasn’t the manager of the Twins, I have no idea,” he said. “But when you get the chance to put on a uniform, they’re not going to move you up unless you earn the right to move up.”
They’re also not going to let you manage unless you’ve earned the right. Having the right last name isn’t enough.
“Toby’s his own man and his own manager and his own coach,” Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “He’s not somebody who is in this position because he’s Ron Gardenhire’s son. He’s in it because he’s Toby Gardenhire and he’s a damn good baseball coach.”
Similar yet different
He is Toby Gardenhire, but he’s also Ron Gardenhire son, and many of the traits that made the elder Gardy a good manager have been passed down. It’s most notable in their people skills and how they interact with those around them.
“They both have that great ability to relate to everybody, and I can’t tell you that they have the same personality but I can tell you that people love them both and they both have that thing like when they come in the room, you’re happy that person is walking in the room,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Toby Gardenhire says his mother, Carol, often says the two are like the same person. But Ron, who was frequently traveling when his son was young, is quick to tip his hat to his wife for how Toby turned out. “He’s got a lot of his mother’s personality, which is good,” he said. “Calm demeanor, not like mine.”
Ron Gardenhire was known for his fiery personality. He is currently in the top-10 of all-time major league ejections with 85. Toby has three to his name that he can recall as a manager, one as a player.
“I would say he’s a little more laid back, but I wouldn’t let that fool you, though,” Tommy Watkins, Gardenhire’s longtime friend and Twins first base coach, said. “I could see Ron coming out in him a little bit.”
Watkins, who played for Ron and was a minor leaguer in the Twins’ organization at the same time as Toby, sees them both “people people,” those who get along with everyone around them. Toby, he said, has the ability to relate to everybody and knows how to get through to his players, a big reason for his success as a manager.
In his first two minor league seasons, the younger Gardenhire is 151-121 (.555), managing the Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2018 and then-Fort Myers Miracle in 2019. He was ticketed to manage the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings in 2020 before the season was wiped out due to COVID-19. Instead, he spent the summer working at the Twins’ alternate at CHS Field where he got a taste of what managing at Triple-A would be like.
Triple-A is a unique level. One minute, you might be dealing with a first-round draft pick who has had a smooth ride through the minors and is headed towards a long major league career. The next, you might be dealing with a longtime minor leaguer who might never get his shot. The latter is a situation Gardenhire knows well, and the blend of players is one the Twins think Gardenhire is well-equipped to handle.
“He’s a great blend of old school and new school,” Twins director of player development Alex Hassan said. “He is smart, intelligent, up to speed on a lot of new trends that have been present in our game today, but at the same time he has really good feel for people … and doesn’t lose sight that it’s human beings playing this game.”
The same people skills that the Twins highlight as among Gardenhire’s top attributes helped a young student through a situation that some kids might regard as a nightmare. The Gardenhire family lived in Wichita, Kan., when Toby was growing up, but every year he would spend three quarters of the school year in Kansas and the fourth where his dad was managing.
For years, that meant Gardenhire would spend the last part of his school year in Roseville, leaving his friends in Kansas for a different set of friends in the Twin Cities, blending back in easily. It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school that he spent an entire year at the same school.
Some of Gardenhire’s lasting memories from attending Roseville Area High School include losing to Joe Mauer and Cretin-Derham Hall at Midway Stadium, then the home of the Saints. The connection to the Saints doesn’t end there. Some the players on his team at Stout went on to play for the Saints, as did some of his former minor league teammates. Returning home to manage the Saints, he said, is “a full circle-type thing.”
He has a sister still living in the area, as well as some of his wife’s family. A cousin coaches wrestling at Henry Sibley High School. Gardenhire used to compete in a bowling league at West Side Lanes in West St. Paul and many of his friends from that still remain in town. He’s excited for them all to get a chance to see him coach at CHS Field.
“It’s a pretty cool deal for me to get a chance to coach up in St. Paul with the Saints and be still in the Twins’ organization,” he said. “It’s a pretty neat opportunity.”
How long his stay in St. Paul lasts — and whether another Gardenhire one day joins the Twins’ major league coaching staff — well, that’s a question for another day.
“Truthfully, the sky is the limit for Toby. I see Toby as a major league staff member,” Baldelli said. “I can’t tell you what he’s going to do. I don’t think anyone knows what he’s going to do in the future, but I think he’s capable of pretty much anything in the game.”