There are two general points of view when it comes to Ron Gardenhire.
Most people outside of Minnesota seem to feel that he's one of the game's best managers, a man who consistently gets the very most out of his players and puts the Twins in a position to contend year in and year out. When a Twins game is nationally broadcast, you almost always hear the announcers fawning over Gardenhire. Fellow managers and baseball people across the league consistently speak very highly of him. Joe Posnanski -- who I think is one of the very sharpest baseball minds in the country -- has repeatedly opined that the Twins' manager is the best in the game. Gardenhire had placed among the top three finishers in the Manager of the Year voting five times in his seven years as a manager entering this season.
Many people within Minnesota who follow the Twins closely, on the other hand, seem to feel that Gardenhire is a terrible manager who holds the team back year in and year out. Fans rail on him for his bullpen management. Bloggers rip him for his stubborn loyalty to bad players. It seems that every week during the baseball season there are multiple columns in the local newspapers in which scribes question Gardy's tactical decision-making.
Logically, it would seem that the group that follows the team closely and gets an intimate perspective of how the manager operates would provide the most accurate portrayal of that manager's job aptitude. However, I don't think that's the case here. I feel as though many hardcore Twins fans get so worked up over Gardenhire's flaws that they are unable to fully appreciate the man's full body of work -- an eight-year tenure which now includes seven winning records and five division championships.
The most recent of those AL Central titles stands as perhaps the most impressive, all things considered. By mid-September this year, the Twins sat several games out of first place with numerous key players on the shelf. The starting first baseman -- who had been a crucial contributor during a first half in which he'd posted MVP-caliber numbers -- was done for the year with a back injury, as was the team's slick-gloved, power-hitting third baseman. Three-fifths of the season-opening rotation had lost their starting jobs, due to either injury or ineffectiveness (or both). The team was relying largely on mediocre minor-leaguers and relatively underwhelming trade acquisitions to scrape by. Most fans had given up on the club, and it would have been tough to blame the players themselves for packing it in and beginning to concentrate on next year.
But, they didn't. The Twins rallied to win 16 of their final 20 regular-season games to draw even with the first-place Tigers and force a one-game tiebreaker at the Metrodome. There, in a hard-fought extra-innings battle, the Twins emerged victorious, capping off one of the most improbable late-season comebacks in franchise history. Plenty of credit rightfully goes to the players who stepped up and carried the team during this impressive late stretch, but it's tough to overlook the man who piloted the ship.
Without a doubt, Gardenhire has his flaws. As a person who has watched the team regularly during his entire tenure, I'm not ignorant to those flaws. But what people around here don't seem to realize is that every manager has flaws. Yes, Gardenhire is too stringently adherent to traditional closer usage when it comes to utilizing Joe Nathan. Yes, he's too stubbornly fixated on having a middle infielder batting in the second spot in the order, regardless of whether that player's offensive proficiency qualifies them for such an important duty. Yes, he's overly loyal to the players he deems "scrappy." Yes, he lets his obsession with veteran presence put younger and more talented players at an often unfair disadvantage. But these are flaws that plague many of the game's managers. We've seen the skipper of each team in the playoffs this year make questionable decisions. There's no denying that Gardy is largely able to succeed in spite of his downfalls.
For whatever reason, people around here seem quick to criticize Gardenhire but hesitant to credit him for the things he does well. During almost every game I hear people complaining about the way he operates the bullpen, but the Twins finished fourth in the the league in bullpen ERA and sixth in WHIP this year despite sporting a corps of relievers that -- early in the season -- looked like it was going to be a complete disaster. In fact, Gardenhire's bullpens consistently rank among the league's best, and I would argue that managing relievers is actually one of his greatest strengths. It's easy to play the "coulda shoulda woulda" game during the season and point out individual instances where Gardy perhaps could have more effectively utilized his bullpen arms, but again I encourage you to step back and consider the overall results.
Gardenhire is also liked and respected by his players, which is no small thing. He keeps the clubhouse loose and and avoids infighting. It's worth noting that, despite his troubled past, Delmon Young has had essentially zero publicized negative incidents since coming to Minnesota. Orlando Cabrera, who was reportedly run out of Chicago last year after run-ins with his White Sox teammates and manager, was praised as a clubhouse staple here after coming over. Players enjoy playing for Gardy and they seem to stay motivated and focused.
A manager's effect on the outcomes of ballgames tends to be overrated. Gardenhire made some tactical decisions that helped the team this year and some that hurt it. But, in the end, his players came together for him and made a huge push, winning game after game late in the season to capture the division title.
I don't know if Gardenhire excelled more than any other American League manager this year -- Mike Scoscia and Ron Washington both did excellent work -- but he certainly deserves to be one of the front-runners for the Manager of the Year award. Even if local fans are too blinded by his downfalls to admit it.