Ron Gardenhire’s experience in the game extends far beyond his 14 seasons as a big-league manager. The 60-year-old “Gardy” has also spent time as a coach and a minor-league manager — and, before that, he played nine seasons as an infielder in the New York Mets system. Primarily a shortstop, Gardenhire appeared in 285 games with the NL East club between 1981 and -85.
He’s also a lifelong fan of the game. The bulk of Gardenhire’s formative years were spent in small-town Okmulgee, Oklahoma, where he collected bubble-gum cards, religiously tuned in to The Game of the Week, and cheered for his heroes. Then he got to live his dream. Gardenhire played with and against the likes of Dave Kingman, Rusty Staub, and Pete Rose. As he told me recently at Fenway Park, “I’ve been fortunate.”
Ron Gardenhire: “I was an Okie, so I followed the guys who were from Oklahoma more than anything else. Mickey Mantle, Johnny Bench, Bobby Murcer. I also watched the Dodgers, Don Drysdale and those guys, because my dad was in the military and we were out in Arvin, California when he was overseas in Korea. That’s when I really got into baseball. I collected bubble-gum cards, and all that stuff, with my cousins out there.
“Every Saturday we would hunker down in front of the TV and watch the Game of the Week. In our area — this is when we were back in Oklahoma — a lot of the time it was the Cardinals. They were prominent there. We’d also get to see the Yankees quite a bit, and the Dodgers.
“I remember the 1968 World Series with the Tigers and the Cardinals. I had my little transistor radio in the classroom — I think I was in the fifth grade — and I had the game on. Bob Gibson and Mickey Lolich were facing each other that day, if I’m remembering right. It must have been Game Seven. I had the radio on, low, and the teacher walked by and said, ‘Turn it off, Ronald.’ Busted!
“My brother loved Al Kaline and Mickey Lolich. My brother was a left-handed pitcher and he would have all the bubble-gum cards with the Tigers. I would have the Yankees and anybody from Oklahoma. We used to play the card games, flipping them. You know, you land on one and you’re out. And we’d put them in the spokes to make our bikes rattle. We did that with our bubble-gum cards.
“Then I got to play [professional baseball]. It was fascinating. Once I got to the big leagues, I played with Rusty Staub, which was unbelievable. Dave Kingman. Oh gosh. Those guys were… Kingman took care of me. He was awesome. Rusty Staub I ran around with; I went out to eat with him all the time. We were in a running Hearts game. There I was in the big leagues, sitting there looking at all these guys I’d been watching as a fan.
“My first time to Dodger Stadium, my cousins dropped me off and the guards wouldn’t let me in. Dave Kingman pulled in behind us and walked up. He told them, ‘This is the shortstop for the New York Mets. Open the gate and get him in there.’ He said to me, ‘Get in there, kid.’ My cousins are whispering, ‘Is that…?’ I’m, ‘Yeah, that’s Dave Kingman. I play with him. We locker next to each other.’
“You didn’t go to the bathroom when Dave Kingman came up to hit. I can tell you that right now. It was fun to watch him swing. Of the guys I saw play, he hit them as far as anybody. High, monster bombs. He was strong, and he had this big bat that looked like it was 18 feet long.
“Rusty was the best. He was a pinch-hitter when I got there and also played a little first base. I remember playing shortstop and Rusty yelling when a ground ball was hit to me, ‘Give me time to get there!’ as he was running because he didn’t move too well. But he was one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen. He studied the game. He knew exactly who he was going to face as the game unfolded.
“Rusty hit a home run before the age of 20. When he was turning 40 years old, I was up there with him. Toward the end of the  season, he started hitting home runs in BP, which he never did. We were like, ‘What are you doing, Rusty?’ He said he wanted to hit a home run after turning 40. And he did, in the first game after he told us that. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’
“I got my first major-league hit off Bruce Sutter. I’d like to say it was a rocket line drive up the middle, but it was a 93-hopper almost right through his legs. I actually hit Steve Carlton pretty good for who I was. I hit one of my few home runs off of him. That’s a great memory for me. I had a lot of fun. I played with a lot of really good players. Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Lee Mazzilli. Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry. I wasn’t great, but I made it to the big leagues, which a lot of people said I’d never do.
“My first manager was Joe Torre. He was there in 1981, with Bob Gibson as one of the coaches. Here I am, sitting in the dugout, looking around going, ‘Look at this.’ It was pretty cool. And Joe was great. He was like a father figure. He would say the simple things to you like, ‘Put that in your memory bank. Don’t let it happen again.’ He’s always treated me very well.
“I had Pete Rose knock me on my butt. He nicknamed me Wills. It doesn’t get any better than that. I pinch-ran for Rusty all the time, so he called me [Maury] Wills. I was trying to catch a ground ball that bounced up high and he basically spun underneath me and flipped me. I have three big pictures of it and he signed one of them ‘Good luck, Wills.’ Pretty cool.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.