The 2024 baseball season is just around the corner and it’s marked by the passing of Billy Gardner this week, a player/manager you may never have heard of, but one I’ll never forget.
The college baseball season starts in about 40 days, and major league spring training opens in about six weeks.
And about this time every year I get that itch to tell, and hear, baseball stories…because for my spending eight years in the minor leagues around some of the game’s best story tellers I’ve heard thousands of them. And lived some of them, personally.
But this past week marked the passing of a man that I knew from those years, long-time major league infielder, and former major league manager, Billy Gardner, who passed away at age 96…peacefully, just like he said he liked his baseball when he was managing.
Gardner was a major league infielder for 19 seasons, playing for the Orioles, the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins. A quiet guy, he seldom talked at all, but later on, when I got to know him as a minor league manager, I learned that if he had something to say it didn’t hurt to listen, and that if it was directed at you there might be a reason for it.
Quiet, but funny, was Billy Gardner. His nickname was ‘Slick’, and he told me one time during a rain delay in the Southern League that he got the nickname because he was so good at turning the double play. “I could turn it in a phone booth,” he deadpanned, never cracking a smile.
I learned as much from Billy Gardner about the game of baseball as any baseman man I ever knew; and I wasn’t even playing. You might say that we were on opposite sides.
For instance, he walked by me one time between innings, standing behind home plate, and asked, “Hey…are you having fun at your job (umpiring)?”
“Most days,” I answered, questioning to myself why he would ask.
“Well,” he said, “if you want to get to the show you’d better let ’em know that you love it more than your wife and kids. Even on your worst day. That’s how this business works.”
Another time, in Chattanooga, he came out to argue a play at first base that I think I missed by about 15 minutes.
“Now I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job,” Gardner said matter-of-factly. “Just that you’d better work on it. I like things peaceful out here.”
Gardner would later replace Johnny Goryl as manager of the Minnesota Twins in 1981, eventually developing many of the players that would win the World Series in 1987. But Gardner didn’t see it. He was fired in 1985, probably because he didn’t have enough fun at his job.
He got a second crack at the major leagues with the Kansas City Royals in 1987 when Royals manager Dick Howser died of cancer. He was fired two months later for, you guessed it, not having enough fun. He never managed, or coached in the major leagues again.
He told me one time during a Triple A spring training game that he thought I did a good job. “You’re good enough to get to the show,” he said.
“But,” he added. “I’ve never gotten the impression that it mattered how good you are if you get to major leagues as an umpire.”
Two years later, when I was released by the Major League Baseball Umpire Development program – for not having enough fun at my job – I thought about what he said, and how its meaning went far beyond baseball.
I’ll never forget ‘Slick’ Gardner; and I’m sorry to hear that he’s gone.