During a 25-minute Zoom call with reporters last week, Ron Gardenhire spent as much time talking about the coronavirus as baseball. He admitted his ‘concern.’ He pointed to his own health scares and said he’s ‘uneasy’ about the risks ahead. He acknowledged it’s a ‘dangerous situation’ and ‘safety is No. 1.’
He also said how ‘excited’ he is to get back in the dugout and manage his team.
“40 years I’ve been in baseball. Once it gets taken away from you and we had to stop spring training, poof, everybody was gone,” Gardenhire said. “There’s a fellowship in baseball that’s second to none because we play so many games and we’re around each other. You miss those things. Like I said, the biggest thing is health.”
It’s an obvious dilemma. Gardenhire is eager to return for the same reasons he should stay away. The Tigers have already had two members of the organization test positive for Covid-19. What happens when 60 players plus coaches report this week to Comerica Park? What happens when the team begins traveling together this season? What happens if the virus enters the clubhouse and then slips into Gardenhire’s office?
The Twins made the tough call Monday to keep two coaches out of the clubhouse this season — at least for now — who are both over the age of 65. It’s fair to wonder if the Tigers, and Gardenhire himself, might have to consider the same thing. Gardenhire turns 63 in October. He’s had cancer and diabetes. And he’s not the only member of the coaching staff at higher risk of Covid-19.
Detroit is one of three MLB teams with four coaches at least 60 years old. Pitching coach Rick Anderson is 63, bench coach Lloyd McClendon is 61 and hitting coach Joe Vavra is 60. It doesn’t mean they need to be separated from the Tigers altogether. Maybe they don’t need to be separated at all. But if there’s a way for them to do their jobs without working in close quarters every day, isn’t it something the organization should discuss?
“I would never want to jump ship from my team,” said Gardenhire. “We’re hopefully going to do everything right as far as protocol goes and keep everybody healthy as best we possibly can. But yeah, I’m definitely a little uneasy about it, just because we got 60 guys coming through a clubhouse and a whole bunch of coaches too. We know how this thing happens, we’ve seen it happen. Hopefully we’ll be able to keep it away from our ballclub.”
Surely this is a conversation happening around the league. The Astros, led by 71-year-old skipper Dusty Baker, have three coaches at least 70 years old. Baker has given no indication he intends to step aside this season, though he has his concerns. The difference might be that Baker is beginning his first season in charge of a World Series contender. The stakes are considerably lower for Gardenhire and the Tigers.
On a bigger scale, they’re exactly the same. That’s why two players from the defending World Series champs, including two-time All-Star Ryan Zimmerman, have already decided to sit the season out . Same for two-time All-Star Ian Desmond of the Rockies. Those three — and there will likely be more — decided the risk wasn’t worth the reward. Their respective teams stood firmly behind them.
Gardenhire has every intention of managing this season. He said he’ll wear a mask in the dugout, “if that’s what it takes.” The Tigers are finally turning the corner, if slowly and cautiously, and Gardenhire wants to stay at the wheel. It’s an opportunity he deserves after two summers of staring into the abyss . Same for Anderson, McClendon and Vavra. It’s hard to imagine any of them backing out now.
Ideally, the season will arrive and the safety measures will work and we’ll all stay healthy. And as long as things are ideal, the Tigers will win the World Series. But Gardenhire said it himself: “You’d be silly and naive if you think this is going to be a perfect situation.”
So maybe it’s on the Tigers to make a tough call of their own. They won’t want to, and Gardenhire won’t want to hear it. He and his coaches will want to work their way through the season. But if the Tigers have any misgivings, they should step in now. Better to act when they can, than react when they have to.