St. Paul Saints Throw Gardy Party in 2021
Image courtesy of Seth Stohs | Twins DailyFirst manager with the club under the Minnesota Twins’ affiliate umbrella, anyway. After all, there have been five managers in the history of this iteration of the Saints franchise -- most recently with George Tsamis for the last 18 years.
Prior to officially introducing him to the media, Saints general manager, Derek Sharrer offered Gardenhire a “blanket apology” in advance for the onslaught of promotions, silliness and fun that has become synonymous with St. Paul Saints baseball. He will possibly have to navigate farm animals, messes, and general goofiness as he tries to develop players ready for the highest level of baseball.
Gardenhire is well aware of the legendary on-field extravaganza that is Saints baseball. As someone who grew up just outside of the St. Paul city limits, he knows they can be a blast.
In some ways it has come full circle for him.
He logged innings at Midway, the Saints’ previous home, as a high school player for Roseville, continually getting bested by Joe Mauer’s Cretin team. He’s had former teammates and even former kids he coached while at UW-Stout go on to play for the Saints. Not too long ago, he and his father took in a game at CHS to watch Joe Vavra’s son Tanner play.
His coaching experience started in Division III UW-Stout, in Menomonie, Wisconsin, an hour’s drive east on Interstate 94. There, he learned that being a college coach involves more than just writing a lineup card. He would be doing field maintenance, laundry and ordering the uniforms.
“You learn a lot doing the laundry and pulling the tarp on the field at midnight,” he joked.
Even before he became a coach, Gardenhire thought he was being groomed to eventually lead instead of play. When he was a utility player for Triple-A, his then-manager Tom Nieto would give him the duties of signaling in plays for the catcher. He worried that he’d return to his locker and find his cleats and glove replaced with turf shoes and a fungo.
It’s probably not a difficult conclusion to draw when your father is managing the team’s big league club. He’s dealt with people tossing out accusations of nepotism for years now. As a player, he tried to tune it out but fans would yell lines that would pierce his psyche.
Once when he was with the Twins in a spring training game, the heckles rained down.
“They’d say ‘what is this take-you-kid-to-work-day or did Christmas come early’,” Gardenhire recalled.
Having a father with a long coaching career certainly comes with benefits, such as access to some of the great managerial minds. When he was 10 years old, Tom Kelly told little Toby to fill out a lineup card. Toby did and gave it back to the manager. Kelly looked at the lineup, proclaimed it terrible and tossed it in the garbage.
Not a bad lesson to learn at a young age.
Gardenhire believes his experience as a minor league role player prepared him well to handle the Triple-A position. He witnessed first hand the elation and devastation that comes with the promotion and demotion of players. He knows how to handle conversations that are sure to come this summer.
After managing Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers in 2018 and 2019, Gardenhire was to continue his ascent and be Rochester’s in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic ended the minor league season.
Gardenhire remained active coaching during the shutdown. After initially staying in Fort Myers to work with the big league players, he joined the Twins in Minnesota during the summer camp session. Following that, he familiarized himself with CHS Field and the Twins’ minor league camp. Eventually he returned to Target Field to coach at the end of the year and during the playoffs.
He found that experience invaluable, getting to know Twins manager Rocco Baldelli and bench coach Mike Bell. Those relationships -- between a Triple-A manager and the big league staff -- is critical when it comes to communicating about a player’s performance, Gardenhire says. There needs to be a level of trust.
Rochester, New York is nearly a thousand miles of hard driving around multiple great lakes away from Minnesota’s capital but the Twins’ highest affiliate shipped the same coaching staff largely intact to St. Paul.
The 2020 season was expected to have Gardenhire overseeing a coaching staff of Cibney Bello (pitching), Matt Borgschulte (hitting), Mike McCarthy (bullpen), and Robbie Robinson (bench coach). Of course, with the pandemic, the minor league season never happened. Bello, Borgschulte and McCarthy will all resume those roles in St. Paul. For 2021, the Twins have added Tyler Smarslok as the team’s infield coach, replacing Robinson in the dugout.
As far as the reduced travel time between the parent club and it’s Triple-A affiliate, Gardenhire views that as a positive. He might have to re-write a few lineup cards or make a last minute substitution right before batting practice as players no longer have to be ready to hop on a 6 AM flight west to reach Target Field.
While the Saints are always up for some shenanigans and tomfoolery, Sharrer made sure to emphasize that the team takes pride in what happens between the white lines. The Twins will have a lot of major league experience and rising prospects ready on the east side of the Mississippi.
There are still a lot of unknowns -- such as when the season will start -- but for now the St. Paul Saints have their leadership in place.
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