MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Ron Gardenhire had every reason to leave and the Minnesota Twins had every reason to let him walk away.
They had partnered for 12 seasons — an eternity in this day and age for a franchise and a manager. They had won a lot of games together — 998 to be exact — and six division titles. They also have endured three straight seasons of at least 96 losses, and the loyal fan base is starting to get impatient.
If ever there was a time for a fresh start, this appeared to be it. But that's not how the Twins operate. And Gardenhire isn't one to walk away when times are toughest.
The Twins and Gardenhire agreed to a new two-year extension on Monday, keeping the second-longest tenured manager in the big leagues in the Twin Cities through the 2015 season.
"My father was a military guy and said the easy thing to do was walk," said Gardenhire, who just finished the final season of his existing contract. "The hard thing to do was stay and try to make it better. That's what I'm going to try to do here. I want to make it better."
Gardenhire has a career record of 998-947 (.513) as a major league manager, and trails only Tom Kelly on the Twins' all-time win list (1,140). But all the losing the last three years was starting to wear on the fans, many of whom wanted to see some big changes made to an organization seems lost its way after being a model franchise last decade.
Instead, the Twins brought back the 2010 AL manager of the year and his entire staff, too, keeping with their longstanding preference for stability at the top.
"Ron Gardenhire didn't get stupid overnight," Twins President Dave St. Peter said. "He was the manager of the year in 2010. I don't think there's been a manager, a coach in this town that has ever connected with Main Street Minnesota better than Ron Gardenhire. I think people relate to him. I think they're angry with the Twins and people want a scapegoat.
"But at the end of the day, we believe organizationally and I think most Minnesotans believe that Ron Gardenhire isn't the problem. We've got to get him better players."
Gardenhire took over for the retired Kelly in 2002, just when the young Twins were poised to make their move after years of miserable rebuilding. He led the team to the division title in his first three seasons and took them to the ALCS in his first year.
Once one of the most popular figures in town thanks to a gregarious personality and impressive run of six AL Central division titles in nine years, Gardenhire started to hear some grumbling from the Twins' fan base in recent seasons. The Twins have been swept out of their last three appearances in the ALDS and have been nowhere close to competing over the last three years. But even after spending this season as a lame-duck manager, Gardenhire made it clear he wanted to return.
"This was a no-brainer for me, a pretty easy thing," Gardenhire said. "I love it here. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I know there was a lot of talk about other ball clubs. This is where I'm comfortable."
Gardenhire met with GM Terry Ryan on Sunday to discuss the direction of the team and the state of the organization in general as the two of them often do during a season. In bringing him back, Ryan is sending a message that the problem lies much more with the talent on the field, and particularly on the mound, than in the dugout.
"We've fallen on some hard times, there's no doubt about that," Ryan said. "Nobody's pretending that everything has gone well the last three years frankly. We need to clean it up and we think we have the right man in-house to do that and I'm very happy he's decided to come back."
Many of the key players in the clubhouse seem to agree.
"I don't think there's anyone else we want leading the team," closer Glen Perkins said Sunday. "There's no better guy to run this team, and I've said it once and will say it a thousand times, it's not his fault. He's doing the best he can with what he's given, and Terry's doing his best to give him more. I don't think that will stop. I think (Ryan) knows where we're deficient and will do what he can to rectify that."
All-Star catcher Joe Mauer, who missed the last 41 games of the season with a concussion, has never played for another manager in the big leagues, and he didn't want that to change.
"I don't think, really, whoever was managing would have made much of a difference," Mauer said. "Gardy's a great manager. He's managed some great teams here. He's a great leader and I hope to see him back here."
The Pohlad family prides itself on stability in the leadership positions, and the Twins have had only two managers since 1986. They rarely bow to public pressure, whether it's to fire an employee, make a trade or splurge on a free agent.
"I think everybody knows that we value consistency and loyalty," Jim Pohlad said.
Now the hard work begins to improve a team that finished 66-96. The starting rotation was by far the worst in the big leagues. Justin Morneau was traded in August, rookies Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia went through horrible slumps after being rushed to the big club and veterans Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit took massive steps backward after impressive seasons in 2012.
The Twins do have two prized prospects in third baseman Miguel Sano and center fielder Byron Buxton that are projected to be All-Star caliber players once they reach the majors. But the most likely scenarios don't have either player becoming everyday players for the Twins until 2015 at the earliest. And neither one of them can pitch, which only makes Ryan's job of upgrading the roster Gardenhire has to work with that much more of a challenge.
"We have a lot of things to fix," Ryan said. "Not just one thing."