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Updated: May 3rd, 2012 9:07pm
Zulgad: Firing Ron Gardenhire isn't answer for what ails the Twins

Zulgad: Firing Ron Gardenhire isn't answer for what ails the Twins

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The vitriol directed at Ron Gardenhire seemed to be at its zenith two years ago after the Minnesota Twins were swept out of the American League Division series by the New York Yankees for the second year in a row.

"When is Gardenhire getting his team in the playoffs no longer going to be good enough and when are the Twins going to finally beat those bleepin' Yankees?" seemed to be the common refrain.

That was the feeling until the 2011 season started and the bottom fell out on the Twins. But a funny thing happened as the Twins manager saw his team put forth one of the most disappointing efforts in franchise history en route to a 99-loss season.

Many fans did not blame Gardenhire or even mention him.

This time the frustration was directed at general manager Bill Smith and the moves, or lack of moves, he made. Gardenhire almost seemed to get a pass as Smith took the brunt of the blame.

Clearly, the Twins brass agreed with what their fans were saying.

Weeks after completing a 63-victory season that saw them finish in last place in the AL Central, 32 games behind the Detroit Tigers, Smith was removed as general manager by owner Jim Pohlad and Terry Ryan returned in the role he had held before stepping down following the 2007 season.

It's now clear the Twins were hoping that a brutal 2011 was more a blip on the radar than anything.

The hope was that former AL MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau would return healthy in 2012, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano would help to anchor the pitching staff and adding a few free agents (Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit, Jamey Carroll and Jason Marquis) would be enough to, if nothing else, make the Twins respectable again until younger reinforcements arrived.

Twenty-four games into the season, it appears that one of two things has happened. Either the Twins grossly misjudged what this roster was capable of doing or the organization is content to let Ryan rebuild but never use the "R" word for fear that fans who pay the price to show up at Target Field will become irritate that a team in a big-revenue park is taking what will be perceived as a small-revenue approach.

Meanwhile, with the Twins sitting at a major-league worst 6-18 after being no-hit in a 9-0 loss by Los Angeles Angels righthander Jered Weaver on Wednesday, it appears fans again are feeling the need to find someone responsible for what has gone wrong.

With Smith gone and Ryan in the midst of his first season back in the GM's chair, this time Gardenhire seems to have been chosen as the fall guy.

The Twitter world lit up late Wednesday and early Thursday after Weaver's gem with questions asking about Gardenhire's job security and the need for the Twins to strongly consider an immediate managerial change.

This comes as no surprise.

Two-plus years into its existence there are now plenty of empty seats at Target Field, and far more will lose a desire to watch this ballclub unless a dramatic turnaround happens, but interest in the Twins is still higher than it ever was during their previous runs of ineptitude.

Games are now consumed far more like football, with at-bats, pitches and decision-making broken down in far greater detail than was the case, for instance, in the 1990s.

There was a time when 24 games into a 162-game season, the Minnesota sports fan might have pointed out it was far too early to get excited or simply said, "That's the Twins."

Not anymore.

Blame is now assessed in quick fashion and Gardenhire is the guy whom many are pointing a finger at and wondering when something will be done. A year ago the feeling became that Gardenhire had too many players on "scholarship" and needed to hurt some feelings. A year later, the thinking seems to be changing to Gardenhire himself now might be on scholarship.

The problem, and what you have to stop and thinks about, is this.

Gardenhire can only work with what he's been given and, quite frankly, he hasn't been given much. That observation could have been made this winter as Ryan signed run-of-the-mill free agents and did little to improve the starting pitching, while lowering the payroll.

Gardenhire didn't get dumb and forget how to manage overnight.

He took over the Twins from Tom Kelly in 2002 and proceeded to win six AL Central titles over nine seasons. The fact the Twins won only one playoff series, beating Oakland in the first round in 2002, might have been a legitimate indictment on how far Gardenhire could take a team.

But what has happened to the Twins the past two seasons is an indictment on the entire organization far more than its manager. The Twins opened the season by getting swept in Baltimore by an Orioles team that appears to be better than many thought.

The Twins scored only five runs in three games which was a surprise considering the bat weren't expected to be the Twins' problem. The hitters eventually woke up, but sure enough the starting pitching, and especially Liriano, provided performances that proved far more should have been done by Ryan during the offseason to retool the staff.

It didn't help that Baker was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery.

Now, the pitching and hitting are both struggling.

The easy thing to do is blame Gardenhire and there is always the possibility that a change right now might wake up this team. But it would be nothing more than a short-term fix for a major problem that needs some serious attention from the top on down.

A caller to "Judd & Phunn" on Thursday suggested the media far too often defends Gardenhire and wants him kept around. It's an interesting point because Gardenhire is a likeable guy and while he's fiery - just watch his postgame press conference from Wednesday - he's also fair in how he treats people.

There is little doubt that if someone with the personality of former Vikings coach Brad Childress was sitting in the manager's office at Target Field, many in the local sporting press would have ripped him up and down by now and perhaps helped drive him out of town.

But just saying that Gardenhire gets the benefit of the doubt is too simple. When Childress was fired in the midst of the Vikings' 6-10 season in November 2010, he was let go in part because he had bungled the entire Randy Moss and Brett Favre situations and because his players were no longer listening to him.

Many players downright didn't like him by that point.

Could some players be tuning out Gardenhire? Sure, they could. But some of those players might not even belong in the big leagues and it isn't Gardenhire who put them on the roster.

Would players maybe listen a bit more intently to Scott Ullger if he was made interim manager? Perhaps. For a few days. But that would be it and by August the same complaints being aired now by fans will have returned.

Ullger, in fact, is expected to manage the Twins this weekend in Seattle as Gardenhire returns to Minnesota to attend his daughter's college graduation.

This will give the anti-Gardenhire faction a chance to see what life would be like with a new manager in the dugout. Odds are good they will see the same thing without Gardenhire that they would have with him: A Twins team far more in need of changes on the field than in the dugout.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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