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The Minnesota Twins were leading the AL West at the time—late August and early September—but they were playing so abominably it seemed the bottom would soon drop out of their frail hopes for a division championship. In this devastating stretch the Twins lost nine of 11 games. And their opponents weren't just beating them, they were bombarding them. The Twins players, many of them in their early 20s, could have been forgiven a collective hangdog look. And if their manager, in the tradition of distraught skippers, had overturned a food table, no one would have reproved him.
The Twins were stinking up the joint, but you would never have known it from their cheerful beardless faces. They weren't in the least discouraged, and in fact they did recover and were still hanging in there on Sunday, tied for first place with Kansas City and one-half game ahead of California. By winning two of three from Kansas City and two of three from Texas last week, the Twins stayed in the race. There's a reason for this indomitability—manager Billy Gardner, the man called, for whatever reason, Slick.
Gardner, 57, loses hope about as often as Indiana Jones does, and, considering the Twins' recent past, he has less cause for optimism. And he never loses his merry aplomb. "I'm not a guy to throw bats and things," Gardner says. "These kids would think I'd gone wacky." Consider his responses to the catastrophes during that recent sorrowful stretch. On Aug. 30, the Red Sox beat his team 9-3. Gardner's starter, Ed Hodge, gave up four runs and seven hits in four innings. His brand-new relief pitcher, Curt Wardle, promoted that very day from the minors, gave up a home run to the third big league hitter he faced, Bill Buckner. And Pat Putnam, whom Gardner acquired from Seattle to provide lefthanded punch, struck out twice and popped up and grounded out in four at bats.
Surely, old Slick would be pitching postgame spaghetti against the clubhouse walls. On the contrary, he was in his office, quaffing a beer and grinning. "The bright spot," Gardner began optimistically, "was Wardle. He pitched good, except for one pitch. But then he was nervous. We're gonna snap out of this—it's just a matter of time. We always come back. I like the atmosphere on this club. They're pulling for each other." The next day, the Twins lost in Toronto 7-0. The winning pitcher, Dave Stieb, struck out 10 and allowed only four hits. Blue Jays third baseman Rance Mulliniks got his ninth straight hit—a home run—this season off Twins pitching. Putnam went hitless again and Wardle (Waddle) gave up another home run. Did Gardner dismantle his office? Uh-uh. "It's a new month," he crowed. "I'm glad August is over, because September's always been a good month for us. I know we'll bound back and put five or six wins together." The day after that, Sept. 1, the Twins lost again to Toronto, 12-4. Once more a Twins starter, Mike Smithson, lasted only four innings. Veteran Slick-watchers could sense the subject of his postgame discourse. Right. "Four runs is a-good sign," burbled Gardner. "We're coming to life a little bit. And Herbie [star first baseman Kent Hrbek] is seeing the ball better. I like the way he's swinging the bat. That's a real plus." The next day the Twins lost 6-0.
But Slick Gardner was right. There were hopeful signs, and the losing streak didn't last. Gardner never allows even the suggestion of a sour note to creep into his dealings with the players. After the fourth straight loss in the streak, he pasted the day's lineup card on the dugout ceiling so "my players can look up to themselves." Said 24-year-old rightfielder Tom Brunansky, whose 31 homers are a team high, "Anybody who can maintain his sanity after losing 102 games [which the Twins did under Gardner two years ago] isn't going to panic now. He's the best manager there could be for this ball club. You'll always see a smile on his face and a joke coming out of it." Hrbek, 24, who's hitting .321 with 25 homers and 96 RBIs, said "Hell would freeze over before Billy Gardner would tear up a clubhouse." And 24-year-old pitcher Frank Viola (17-12) said "Billy is always calm. He's kept us under control." "If you can't play for Slick," says pitching coach Johnny Podres, "you can't play for anybody."
That apparently was what then-owner Calvin Griffith decided when, on May 22, 1981, he appointed Gardner to replace manager Johnny Goryl. Gardner had been Goryl's third-base coach and, though he had managed for a dozen years in the minors, he says Griffith's decision "surprised the——out of me." Gardner liked Griffith's style. "Calvin doesn't sing songs or ride horses or sail boats, he's a baseball man," said Gardner. And Griffith liked Gardner's style. "Calvin told me we were going with the kids," says Gardner. "And I knew we had a lot of young talent in the organization. That was fine with me. I'd been working with kids in the minor leagues for 12 years."
Gardner has an affinity for young players. He was one himself—a very young one. Born in New London, raised and still residing in Waterford, Conn., he signed a contract with the New York Giants after his sophomore year of high school in New London. His mother died when he was nine, and he grew up on a farm worked by his father, who was also a railroad brakeman. "Me and my brother Leslie milked those cows, pal," says Slick, who, with good reason, calls everyone "pal." "We'd get up at five in the morning, milk 'em, then sell the milk. But we always had time to play ball somewhere. We'd play on the fields, using cow flops as bases. We'd play with taped-up balls and nailed-up bats. I was a big Giants and Red Sox fan. I'd go down to the train station in New London when the teams were coming through on their way to Boston. Pd just look through the window at guys like Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. But I never asked for autographs, pal. Just looked through the window. When the Giants wanted to sign me, they had to ask my dad's permission. 'You might as-well play,' he said. 'You flunked sandbox.' Which was pretty close to being true. I wasn't much of a book guy—although all three of my kids have done great in school. Anyway, going off to play baseball was a helluva lot better than cutting hayfields with a hand scythe and grabbing cold teats at five in the morning."
In 1945, his first year as a Giants farmhand, Gardner was assigned to the team in Bristol, Term., a town so small, he says, that "the Howard Johnson's had only one flavor—vanilla. But the people really liked baseball. They'd pass the hat for you if you hit a home run. That'd pay for 10-cent hamburgers at the Pig 'N Whistle in downtown Bristol. Once, I hit two in a game and that paid for a burger and a salad." That first season, a war year, Gardner went from Bristol, where he hit .329, to the Giants' top farm team in Jersey City, where he hit .273. He spent 1946 in the service and the next seven years in the minors. He was finally promoted, at age 26, to the Giants in 1954, their world championship season. Gardner was mostly an infield defensive replacement, appearing in 62 games, but none in the World Series. He also learned a painful lesson on the handling or, rather, the mishandling of young players from Giants manager Leo Durocher.
"I was sent in to play defense for Hank Thompson at third base in one game," Gardner recalls. "In the sixth inning I made an error, and Durocher took me out of the game right away. He didn't wait till the end of the inning or nothing. Bingo, I was out, pal. I'd spent nine years just getting a shot at the big leagues, and he takes me out after an error. He never said a word to me, pal. He just took me out. And I tell you, it was a long walk to the clubhouse in centerfield at the Polo Grounds. A thing like that can really break you down. I made up my mind right then that I'd never ever show a player up like that. I like to win as much as anybody, but you can't take out your frustrations on your ballplayers."
Gardner played 10 years in the big leagues, eventually developing into a fine defensive second baseman and a crafty hitter. Sold to Baltimore in 1956, he was the Orioles' Most Valuable Player in 1957 after hitting .262 and scoring 79 runs. He had become a skillful double-play man—the second-base league leader in DPs in 1959—and that alone, he's convinced, is the reason for his nickname, although old ball-playing colleagues insist that "Slick" comes from his prowess in the pool halls. Gardner steadfastly demurs. "I could shoot a little pool, sure, but I could turn that ball over at second pretty good, too."