FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's difficult to find anyone in the Twins organization who embodies Minnesota better than manager Ron Gardenhire.From fishing to hunting to bowling in his recreational league, Gardenhire has become such a fixture in the Twin Cities that it's almost as if he's revered more as the next-door neighbor than as the man leading one of the most successful franchises in the state. But there's also no question that baseball is Gardenhire's life. And it doesn't take long to understand that after spending a few minutes in the skipper's office down at Spring Training. With a new season quickly approaching, Gardenhire can often be found in that office for hours upon hours each day. And if he's not there, he's on the baseball field taking part in everything, including one stint this spring of teaching his players sliding drills. This spring has been a very busy one for Gardenhire, who has tried to balance a tight rotation battle and has dealt with his fair share of injuries. He recently sat down with MLB.com to talk about his thoughts heading into the new year. MLB.com: You're coming off a season that many say will go down as one of the most exciting in club history. It certainly helped the team attract the attention of the entire state of Minnesota. Did you notice a change in how people talked about this team in the offseason? Gardenhire: I think last year was a lot of fun for our fans. I think we started out bad and there was a lot of excitement over our team, where we were going to go with this team and what was going to happen. Once we got going, our fans really rallied behind us and I think it was a lot of fun. They really relate to these young players, especially with a local guy like Joe Mauer. Some of the young guys are very charismatic and have really drawn the interest of the fans. I think it says a lot when you consider how the people got behind us. It really was a lot of fun. MLB.com: There were a lot of memorable moments from last year's impressive run, but if you had to pick your favorite part of last season, what would it be? Gardenhire: I think the best part was watching the guys not quit. We were down, but no one quit rooting for each other. And we kept telling them, 'It's going to turn, boys, it's going to turn around here. We'll start pitching better and catching the ball better and things are going to turn around.' These guys really care too much about each other to let it go any other way. That was the best part -- watching a group that never really gave up on itself, kept plugging away and finally it started working. MLB.com: Despite all that you accomplished last year, expectations for this club haven't been very high this spring. Many pundits have picked the team to finish as low as fourth in the division. How have you taken to all of that? Gardenhire: We try to deflect all that stuff, the expectations. We try not to let it creep into our heads. We feel pretty good about ourselves. We feel like when we're going out there and playing our baseball we can compete with anybody, so we try not to let any negative stuff get in our heads. That's the biggest thing around here, is to not let the negative stuff get in here. MLB.com: Part of the reason this team has been picked to finish so low is that the AL Central is one of the toughest divisions in the league. You've talked about how strong it was in the past. Is it going to be even stronger this year? Gardenhire: I think it is a strong division. I mean, it's going to be really, really good. And you never know what team is going to take off. Cleveland, I know they were expected to do really, really well last year and they struggled a bit, but they'll be back. Put that with the White Sox, Detroit, us and Kansas City, and it's a great division. The great thing about the game of baseball is that people can write or say anything they want to say, and they can write it down on paper but it never plays out exactly that way on the field. Players play on the field and the heart has to come out and the desire and that's where it's going to be won and lost.
MLB.com: That certainly was the case last year, with many people predicting your team to finish a distant third behind the White Sox and the Indians. And in the end, it was you and Detroit battling for the division title. Do you use that as motivation for this team now?Gardenhire: That's the great thing about this game. It plays out on the field. Hopefully this year we'll be consistent from the beginning until the end. But you just never know how it's going to turn out. Injuries come into play, all kinds of things come into play. So we try not to think too much about it. MLB.com: Position battles have usually been an annual rite of spring for this ballclub. But this year it's been the rotation that was under debate all spring. Do you feel good about the group as you prepare to break camp? Gardenhire: We've been sitting here and trying to make up our minds on it. But the thing is, you don't really get a good feel for it until you start playing and start seeing whether it's going to work or not. The first two, three weeks or month of the season, that's when you get a feel for how your staff is going to do. It's hard to say how [Sidney] Ponson is going to react once the season gets going, it's hard to say how [Ramon] Ortiz is going to throw the ball. Ponson is throwing the ball really well down here and we're confident about him right now. Ortiz is throwing the ball OK. Then we've got [Johan] Santana, and [Boof] Bonser is throwing the ball well. There are issues, but I think once we get to the season and we see how these guys react to it, whether it's Carlos Silva or Matt Garza in that final spot, then we'll get a better feel. I think you just have to start the season and then evaluate where you're at. MLB.com: How different has it been this spring to be concerned with the rotation, considering that it normally has been one of the team's strengths, not weaknesses? Gardenhire: Last year was funny because we left for the season and everybody was like, 'Wow, this is a solid rotation all the way through,' and then it was like the bottom fell out. We didn't know which way to go. You couldn't imagine that much trouble at the beginning of the season with your rotation. Honestly, I have a little shield up about this stuff with the pitching this year. We're trying to let them feel their way through Spring Training and once we get to the season, we'll go from there. I put up a little shield here because we thought we had it all figured out last year, and it darn sure wasn't. MLB.com: The rotation aside, what have been your biggest accomplishments so far in camp? Gardenhire: I think our lineup. We haven't been able to put it all together lately because of a few injuries, but I think hopefully getting through Spring Training with our lineup intact means a lot. And it looks like a pretty good lineup. The bullpen also looks good. You're always worried about who is going to remain healthy, but we think we're going to be going into the season on a roll with our bullpen, so those things are fantastic. Our rotation, that's where the questions are going to be -- even when the season starts we're asking ourselves, 'Well, can this guy get it done?' Everybody goes through the same thing and every team goes through the same thing. The Yankees are going through it right now, too. So we'll see how it plays out. MLB.com: The motto this spring from inside the clubhouse has been trying to get back to the playoffs to prove that this team isn't the same one that was swept in three games by Oakland in the ALDS. What do you think is the key to returning to the postseason? Gardenhire: Consistency will play a big part. But really, it's all going to come down to our starting pitching. If we can get enough innings out of our starters, I think the rest of the ballclub can rise to the occasion. We have enough hitters, we can score runs and I think our bullpen is solid, so it's going to come down to the starting pitching -- how deep they can get into ballgames so as not to put so much pressure on our bullpen. That's going to tell you how far we can go. MLB.com: Your first test of the year will come against the Orioles as you face them at home for a three-game series. You've seen that ballclub a few times already this spring, so how good of a test will this be? Gardenhire: When you're seeing them and scouting them, watching how you're pitching their hitters and all those things, it's going to be a good baseball team. You've got Bedard, he's going to go the first game against Santana and he's one of the best left-handers in the league right now. He's developed himself into a pretty good pitcher. You always know that Opening Night, there should be a premium on runs and you've got to figure out if you can execute. It should be fun. It's a good baseball team, it's a good start to the season. They've got a great offense -- Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora -- and overall, they just have a good team. We're going to have to come in and be ready to play. MLB.com: So you'll get a good chance to see how that rotation will fare, huh? Gardenhire: Well, after Baltimore I think we've got Chicago and then New York, so I think our first nine games ought to be real entertaining [laughs].
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.