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      W A L L   O F   F A M E

JANUARY 1, 2003

Ron Gardenhire
2002 Futility Infielder of the Year

TO SAY THAT RON GARDENHIRE EXCEEDED EXPECTATIONS in 2002 would be an understatement. When he was hired to manage the Minnesota Twins in early January, Gardenhire faced the difficult task of replacing an icon in departing manager Tom Kelly. Furthermore, he didn't even know if his team would survive the offseason, as Bud Selig's nefarious contraction scheme placed the Twins squarely in the crosshairs. But Gardenhire and his team not only survived, they thrived. The rookie manager piloted the Twins to the AL Central crown, and in their their first postseason since 1991, they upended the Oakland A's before falling to the eventual champions, the Anaheim Angels.

Normally, these accomplishments would be worthy of recognition, and Gardenhire received a minor amount by placing third in the Manager of the Year balloting (I had him second on my Internet Baseball Awards ballot). But Gardenhire has earned an even more special place in my book. To my knowledge, he's the first player (or ex-player) ever to refer to himself as a futility infielder. In March 2000, the self-deprecating Gardenhire (then the Twins third-base coach) described his playing career to a Naples Daily News reporter: "I was what you call a futility infielder." (I didn't discover this quote until after I'd named my site and registered my domain).

His 5-year career in the majors certainly fit the moniker. From 1981 to 1985, Gardenhire toiled at three infield positions for the Mets, struggling with the bat and the glove. As a hitter, he posted a mediocre career .232 average, with thin peripherals: a .277 On Base Percentage, and a .296 Slugging Percentage for his career, and a whopping total of four home runs. As the Mets' regular shortstop in 1982 (his sole season as a starter), he rung up 29 errors, tied for third in the league. He lost his job the next season to Jose Oquendo, and struggled for playing time and a roster spot for the remainder of his career. Most painfully, he tore up his knee making a double play before he could be recalled by the Mets for their eventual run to the 1986 World Championship. Ouch.

Gardenhire never made it back to the bigs. He was traded to the Twins in 1987, but another injury forced retirement. He settled into coaching, because as he said, "You get to that point in your career, because you suck, you need to find something else to do." He managed the team's entry in the Florida Instructional League, and went on to manage three seasons in the minors, one in Class A Kenosha and two in AA Orlando; all three teams finished over .500. The Twins promoted him to the big club in 1991, where he joined Tom Kelly's staff for the second of the team's two World Championships during his tenure.

Gardenhire became a candidate for managerial jobs three winters ago, interviewing for the Chicago Cubs position which eventually went to Don Baylor. During the 2000 season, he filled in on the Twins' bench when Kelly had to leave the team to be with his ailing father, and guided them to a 5-4 record. The Twins thought so highly of his prospects as a manager that he beat out hometown favorite and bench coach Paul Molitor for the job of succeeding Kelly.

And succeed he did. Let loose from the contraction noose, the Twins opened the season building on a solid second half of 2001. The team came out of the gate strong, took over first place for good on May 25, and coasted to the AL Central flag by 13.5 games. Gardenhire navigated the Twins through several injuries to their core strength, front-line starting pitchers Brad Radke, Eric Milton, and Joe Mays. He ably patched the rotation, put together a great bullpen anchored by Everyday Eddie Guardado, and took advantage of the Twins' plethora of potent young bats. The result: a 94-67 season and a September 15 clinching.

In the Division Series, the Twins faced the heavily-favored Oakland A's. Despite a rocky start that included three first-inning errors in Game One, and on the verge of elimination after three games, they rallied back, beating the A's 5-4 in an electrifying Game Five. After winning the opener of the League Championship Series against the Angels, Gardenhire's magic came up against too much Rally Monkey business. The bullpen crumbled, and the Angels took the next four games and went on to win the World Series.

But that doesn't diminish Gardenhire's accomplishments. His guidance of the Twins, combined with his sense of humor, have made him the obvious choice for the 2002 Futility Infielder of the Year award. Congrats, Gardy!