MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — He was the third base coach who gave Kirby Puckett a high-five to punctuate his winning homer in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series.
He was the trusting candidate who took Minnesota’s managing job when many thought the Twins were about to be contracted in 2002.
He was the affable everyman who presided over the team’s turn-of-the-century renaissance and turned the AL doormat into a six-time division champion.
Ron Gardenhire was just about everything in the 27 years he spent in the Twins organization. But even he couldn’t survive the worst four-year stretch in franchise history.
The Twins fired Gardenhire on Monday, saying it was time for a new voice after his 13-year tenure concluded with 383 losses over the last four seasons.
“The reason for this change, I think it’s safe to say, the last couple years we have not won enough games,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “That’s what it comes down to. It’s nothing more, nothing less than that.”
The move was made with one season left on Gardenhire’s contract, ending the second-longest active tenure in the major leagues behind Mike Scioscia of the Angels.
Gardenhire played an integral role in the franchise’s turnaround, guiding the Twins to the playoffs six times in nine seasons from 2002-10. But Gardenhire’s teams only got out of the first round once, and his postseason record was 6-21 with the last win coming in 2004.
The Twins have long been the model of stability in not only baseball but major professional sports, with only two managers over the last 28 years and two general managers over the last 20 seasons.
But all the losing of late became too much to overcome. Over the last four years, the Twins went 78-148 from Aug. 1 on for an abysmal .345 winning percentage.
“I’m gone, I’m outta here because we didn’t win,” Gardenhire said. “That’s what it gets down to in baseball. That’s what it should get down to. You have to win on the field and these last four years have been tough for all of us.”
The Twins finished this season at 70-92, making Gardenhire just the fourth manager in the game’s history to preside over at least four straight 90-loss seasons with the same team, joining Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics (nine), Zach Taylor of the St. Louis Browns (four) and his predecessor with the Twins, Tom Kelly (four). Kelly returned for one more season after his streak, and he retired after an 85-77 finish in 2001.
“One of the things we hope to get back to here is a winning culture across our organization, and not just with the major leagues,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said, later adding, “That’s clearly one of the goals with this move is to jumpstart that. Not to say that Ron wasn’t capable of that … but I think we believe very strongly that we’ve gotten away from that in recent years.”
In an era when job security for managers is seemingly measured in months, Gardenhire’s longevity has been truly unique. The outspoken and fiery Gardenhire quickly became one of the faces of the franchise, as synonymous with the Twins as the interlocking T and C on their caps. He took over for the revered Kelly, who won two World Series championships, just as the organization was starting to regain its footing after years of bad baseball.
“I feel like he’s my brother, not my manager,” said a glassy-eyed Ryan, who has known Gardenhire dating to their days together in the New York Mets system in the 1980s.
Ryan spent some time away from the organization this year to get treatment for cancer. He said Monday that a recent physical came back favorable and that he will return to the Twins next season.
Ryan offered Gardenhire a chance to remain in the organization, but Gardenhire doesn’t believe he’s done managing just yet.
“I would have loved to have won a World Series, but that didn’t happen,” Gardenhire said. “Maybe it’s still to come.”
Gardenhire clashed with some players over the years, but there was an expectation and hope among the players that he would return.
“We as players had a responsibility to the organization, fans, and coaches to win this season,” starting pitcher Phil Hughes tweeted. “We failed.”
Gardenhire joined the organization in 1987 and was added to Kelly’s staff in 1991. His record as Twins manager was 1,068-1,039. He won the American League Manager of the Year award in 2010, the last time the Twins not only made the playoffs but had a winning record.
“As good as it gets in my opinion. Comes to the park ready to win each and every day. Kind of a players’ manager,” second baseman Brian Dozier said last week. “Always in good spirits. He knows the game better than anybody I’ve been around. I 100 percent want him back.”
The contracts of Gardenhire’s coaches were expiring, but some of them could be brought back. Bench coach Paul Molitor is sure to be considered for Gardenhire’s replacement, but Ryan’s search will spread outside the organization, too.
“Sometimes people need to hear a different voice,” Gardenhire said. “They need a new face. I just want this organization to win; I’ll be rooting just like everybody else.”
The run of futility has disillusioned a once-passionate fan base, with attendance in Target Field’s fifth year the lowest for the Twins since 2004.
Owner Jim Pohlad said dwindling attendance had “virtually zero” impact on the decision and they would have brought Gardenhire back next season if Ryan recommended it.
“He connected with me and our family way more than any single person in our entire career as owners of the team,” Pohlad said. “He’s just a special guy. He’s loved. He’s loved by us. I’ll always remember him as a winner.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.