Johnny Goryl was reportedly a players’ manager. He was easy-going and had a “light touch” when dealing with players. In that regard, the fact that he directed the Twins for as long as he did makes him a bit remarkable. He succeeded Gene Mauch late in the 1980 season when the Twins, under Mauch’s direction, were in the midst of one of their worst performances since moving to Minnesota. Calvin Griffith was willing to try something new, and Goryl’s success down the stretch run of the 1980 season bought the likeable manager another try to start the 1981 season.
An 11-25 start to the 1981 campaign made Goryl’s tryout shorter than many had hoped. Players expressed disappointment that they had “let down” the popular manager. Griffith even expressed remorse after firing Goryl, but didn’t hesitate once things seemed to be going the wrong way. Griffith’s main concern was that Goryl had been too easy on the players.
Enter Billy Gardner. Gardner was a minor league manager for 12 years, and had been in baseball since 1945. Many thought that he earned the nickname “Slick” because of his long, combed back black hair. Patrick Reusse remarked that if James Dean had lived to be 53, he would have looked like Billy Gardner. Gardner insisted, however, that the name came from his ability to turn slick double plays as a middle infielder in his playing days. He also added that it might come from the fact that he was a “slick operator in the pool halls.”
The Twins snatched Gardner up from the Montreal organization prior to the start of the 1981 season, leading many to speculate that he was there simply to fill in if and when Goryl faltered. Griffith wanted someone who would be a little bit tougher on the players, and Gardner hoped to fit the bill. He started with some tough talk:
They’re going to have to start applying themselves. If they don’t, we’re going to make changes. There is no way they can keep making the same mistakes all year.
Shortly after laying down the rules at a team meeting, Gardner continued to sound like the manager Griffith had wanted.
I will not be walked over by my players. If it comes to that, I will be walking over them.
Gardner wasn’t all talk either. Towards the end of the 1981 season, a miserable one for the Twins, he started tinkering with the lineup to get some promising rookies more playing time. He moved John Castino, considered one of the best fielding third basemen in the league, to second base to make room for Gary Gaetti. He also spent the last month of the season getting a good look at Kent Hrbek at first base, Tim Laudner at catcher, and Lenny Faedo at shortstop (presumably the reason that the Twins traded for Greg Gagne early in 1982).
He was not afraid to sit players who weren’t living up to expectations. Dave Engle was the Twins’ hottest hitter towards the end of the 1981 season, but an extended slump accompanied by what Gardner thought of as a lackadaisical approach to spring training landed Engle on the bench and eventually in the minor leagues. When Engle expressed frustration to the media, stating that he didn’t know what he could prove, Gardner fired back that “maybe he can get his stroke back and improve in the outfield.” In Engle’s place, the Twins called up rookie Randy Bush.
Gardner’s philosophy of playing the younger players and alienating (and trading) some of the more comfortable veterans was clearly supported by the organization. It did not, however, pay off immediately. The young Twins went 60-102 in their first full season under Gardner. Players like Hrbek, Gaetti, Frank Viola, and Tom Brunansky took their lumps in the Metrodome’s inagural season. It didn’t get much better in 1983, when the Twins improved by just 10 games. Still, Griffith stuck with Gardner, who had made a third-floor room at the local Super 8 his summer office (in the off-season he returned to his day job: as a salesman for a Connecticut meat and sausage company).
The payoff seemed to come in 1984. The Twins were still a young team, but the rookies of a few seasons earlier now had more experience, and seemed much more comfortable playing in the major leagues together. Another homegrown rookie joined when Kirby Puckett made his debut in 1984. As the team matured, Gardner seemed to loosen his grip. He was now being referred to as “loose” and “laid back” much in the way his successor was. The atmosphere in the Twins’ clubhouse, led by Hrbek and Mickey Hatcher, was more fun. Still, Gardner was able to put his “game face” on when it was time to hit the field.
The Twins, of course, fell short in 1984. It was a heart-breaking meltdown at the end of the season that did the young team in. It may be the reason that Gardner was not around for the ultimate success in 1987. An uneasy relationship with closer Ron Davis, whom the organization still had hopes for despite his role in the 1984 meltdown, might have been another factor. Gardner, however, was Calvin Griffith’s guy, and it might have been that Gardner’s days were numbered from the time that Carl Pohlad bought the team from the Griffith family. The move was finally made by team President Howard Fox when the Twins, with the high expectations from the year before, had limped to a 27-35 record to start the 1985 season.
Though he wasn’t around for the ultimate payoff, it is not a stretch to say that the Gardner philosophy of playing the rookies, though unpopular at the time, gave the core of Twins that ultimately won it all in 1987 the experience that they needed years before.