FORT MYERS, Fla. -- I saw a marvel on Sunday. Yeah, I walked through the Minnesota Twins' clubhouse and partway down a little hallway and into the manager's office, and right there, sitting there, behind the desk, yakking comically about a zany pre-season opener: Ron Gardenhire.
It's not just that Gardenhire's one-team managerial tenure stands fifth among the 122 major-sports clubs, behind only Gregg Popovich, Barry Trotz, Mike Scioscia and Bill Belichick. It's not just that, even as it's compelling that Gardenhire might go if the Twins yield another clunker of a summer, it's more compelling that he's still here. It's just that . . . do you remember his introductory press conference?
Unless you're a Twins freak -- in which case, congratulations on the good taste -- you probably do not.
Quiz question: On the first Friday of 2002, on Jan. 4, what ghastly subject hovered at the press conference that trumpeted Gardenhire's promotion from third-base coach to manager?
Was it the fact that that Minneapolis day coincided with Dennis Green's louder exit from the Vikings? A very educated guess, but no.
No, Gardenhire became that rare manager appointed under the specter that he would never actually manage. "We all know that contraction is out there," he said that day, and so it was, but here's the thing: I'd forgotten. Twins fans surely hadn't forgotten, but I had. I had forgotten we spent an American winter occasionally discussing the potential extinction of the Twins and Montreal Expos (nowadays the Washington Nationals). My mind had banished it sans fanfare. Maybe that was the penchant of the brain for removing dreariness such as overlong airline delays or Tom Cruise movies.
But it was gone, long gone to some dusty corner, somewhere over there with the beer bongs of college spring breaks, with Ron Gardenhire integral in shooing it.
He started under one shaky paradigm -- with general manager Terry Ryan saying the club would operate "with the assumption that the team is going to play in 2002" -- and lasts all the way to 2013 under this other shaky paradigm: A third straight 90-loss season could topple him even if just for the sake of change. In between bulge the six division titles in nine seasons, the five Manager of the Year runner-up finishes plus the one Manager of the Year win, the club's turn as a paragon of fiscal prudence, the fans' trip from near-contraction to sure dissatisfaction with a slip from a perch nobody could see on that first Friday of 2002.
"You just feel how lucky you are," said the rare sort, the reliable, the face that pretty much ought to adorn maps of the Twin Cities given its constancy. He confirmed that in addition to his one-town longevity, he has had himself a life experience that exceeded a job experience, and he wishes to continue for as long as they'll have him: "I've been happy to be part of this, 'cause there's a lovefest. There really is."
So, yeah, in the rancorous, clamorous sports world, I saw a marvel on Sunday.
"Well, he's won," catcher Joe Mauer said. "He's a guy that pays attention to details but also has a lot of fun with it, too."
"You know," said the Minnesotan relief pitcher Glen Perkins, "I think he's got a way of dealing with players and knowing that each guy's different, and how to handle different personalities in a clubhouse. He knows how to make guys go and how to get certain things out of guys. He treats all of us as individuals -- and as a team."
For a hint, Perkins hinted, check Gardy's playing record, which goes like this: five seasons with the Mets in the early-to-mid-1980s, 57 games per year on average, .232 batting average, four home runs, 49 RBIs. "He feels for you because he knows what it's like," Perkins said. "He was always the last guy on the roster . . . He knows what it's like because he probably always wanted to know where he stood."
That ethic came into play for Perkins during the 2011 spring training, which drifted all the way to the third-to-last day with the pitcher unsure about where he might spend the season, you know, residing. (Atlanta?) He sought out the manager.
"You ask him a question, he's going to give you an answer," Perkins said. "He'll look you in the eye and tell you the truth, and he's not going to just tell you what you want to hear. He's not going to sugarcoat everything. You always know where you stand with him."
And he's generally going to add something he means, but something that helps, and toward Perkins it went like this: "I hate that it's dragged on this long."
The manager promised a timely phone call. The pitcher left the ballpark. He went out fishing with his father-in-law. Some 30, maybe 45 minutes later, en route, the phone rang, and Gardy was on to say Perkins would stay at home. "We probably stopped and had a beer to celebrate," he said. "It was a good phone call. He stuck to his word. He said, 'I'll call you as soon as I know what's going on.'"
That might be a small thing, but when weighing a manager's contribution to overall matters, the Twins do seem to be a big sum of small things. So on a Sunday in February of 2013, here's Gardenhire, still here, after a 10-7, 10-inning, five-Twins-runs-in-the-ninth loss to the Rays, all of which lasted roughly 24 hours. "Squeeze bunts, hit-and-runs, sacrifices, the second day of the spring?" he said.
For the next moments he used a lavish amount of amiable profanity, openly hoping it would keep his words off any Internet audiovisuals. He deployed fine comic timing that made me think I might like to play for him if I would not have such a dreadful WAR. He marveled at a heckler who had whiled away the hot afternoon both praising and lampooning Gardy. "I was a dumb---- for leaving the pitcher out for two runs in a spring-training game," he smiled.
He had managed all the way to a stage when people worried about the Twins' once-sound fielding, while anticipating a fresh wave of youth. "Sometimes it looks like the ball's a hot potato," he said cleanly. "You don't want to hold it too long. You've got to teach a lot of our kids to slow it down, to slow down."
Then, just after a long patch of lively banter, he veered directly to the heartfelt, looking a listener across the desk and into the eye, using words such as "lucky" and "rare" and "special" but saying, "On the flip side of things, the job's all about getting it done." And this man who could help make you forget contraction, this steady island in the sports torrent, said he would have been amazed in January of 2002 had you told him that in February 2013 he would be here, still.