New Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs manager Billy Gardner Jr. had a successful run as manager of the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits. During that time, he kept tabs on the Nationals, and is excited to be able to join the organization.
“I think it is going to be a really good situation with Washington,” Gardner said. “From the top on down - ownership to Mike Rizzo to Doug Harris - a lot of first-class people over there who have the organization going in the right direction and I am fortunate to be a part of it.”
The 47-year-old Gardner was not applying to a “Help wanted” advertisement. The Nationals went looking for him.
Gardner was under contract with the Biscuits, a Rays affiliate. The Nationals had to go to Tampa Bay to get permission. It took a little while to finalize during the busy time of year at the Winter Meetings, but the Nationals were able to get it done. Gardner was grateful the Rays granted that permission. Now he is the manager at Syracuse.
The move also works out well for Gardner and his family, who now are just about five hours away from Syracuse in Westlake, Ohio.
Gardner brings a depth of baseball knowledge to the Nationals from the Rays, who made it their top goal to build from within, which is what the Nationals have been concentrating on since revamping their minor league system the past few seasons.
“I was Double-A for seven years and we had a lot of good players come through Montgomery,” Gardner said. “We did it in Tampa through scouting and player development. We throw the seeds down, water them and watch them grow. We didn’t go out and sign a lot of high-priced free agents. Tampa always did a good job with the money they had, signing guys to long-term contracts before they were going to lose them. Working with a lot of talented players is something that I am used to. I am looking forward to the same thing in Washington.”
Gardner is excited to get the chance to work with the Nationals’ top prospects, who have gotten high praise from top scouts around the major leagues. Last year, four Nationals affiliates played in championship finals from the rookie level all the way to Double-A. A lot of those players from Harrisburg will be under Gardner’s tutelage next season in Syracuse.
“Everything I hear about the organization, it is well-stocked,” Gardner said. “That is a tribute to the people out there in the field - the scouts and coaches and managers who are with these players and in touch with them every day and getting them to the major leagues.”
Gardner worked with several of the Rays’ top prospects over the years, including Evan Longoria and David Price. Gardner said those kind of players were “special and were fast movers and rightfully do. They had a ton of talent but they had also had the intangibles to go along with it. Those players don’t come around often.”
Gardner was able to learn baseball from his Dad, Billy Gardner, who managed the Twins and the Royals. The younger Gardner believes that is a critical component in why he is successful as a manager in the minor leagues himself.
“I think so because at an early age I was exposed to (baseball),” Gardner said. “My dad was in the minor leagues for quite a long time before he finally got a shot in the major leagues. So I was around the minor leagues and then he was with Minnesota (and) I was around the major league environment. I had an idea what it was all about on a very small scale.
“He has been a big influence on my career as have a lot of people. I have come across a lot of good baseball people who help you along the way. At the end of the day, you have to be your own person. You have to be yourself. You are not going to fool anybody. That is how you have to deal with the players, just be up front with them. I learned a ton about that from my dad.”
Gardner has built his philosophy of coaching through a chain of command by letting each coach do his job and creating a good relationship with each player that goes out on the diamond for him each night.
“I think the communication aspect is imperative at any level,” Gardner said. “My lines of communication are always open. I have always been that way. You have to be able to connect with them in order to be able to teach them. I am a big believer in that. You have to get outside the baseball box a little bit and get more into their personal lives and what is going on off the field. Show them how much you care about them. I am big on that.
“We wear a lot of different hats as managers, but I think the ability to connect with people, the people skills part, is at the top of the list for me. There are a lot of different managers out there who are better than I am at the strategic part if the game, the can handle the Xs and the Os, they know how to run a game. But I think the people skills is what really matters in today’s game. You got to be able to connect with people.”
Gardner is also looking forward to working with pitching coach Paul Menhart and hitting coach Joe Dillon.
“The coaching staff is huge,” Gardner said. “I am a big believer in you got to let them do their jobs. You can’t step on their toes. If there is anything I want to add or I like to see get done. I am going to go through them. We have coaches.”
Gardner knows Menhart from all the way back when they played on the same American Legion baseball team in New London, Conn. He had met Dillon briefly and is excited with the coaching staff the Nationals have put together in Syracuse.
Managers at the minor league level spend a lot of time playing players they are directed to play. Gardner blends the organization’s directives with an aggressive tempo each game. Some of that philosophy also comes from working within the Rays organization.
“Any manager would say they want to be aggressive,” Gardner said. “A lot of it is what the game presents. There are a lot of different ways to win a game. That is the one thing we did in Tampa. We employed a lot of different concepts. (Rays manager) Joe Maddon was very hands-on and he was a very outside-the-box, progressive-type thinker.
“There is different ways to go at it. But, yes, we want an aggressive club that is going to play hard and work hard. We will let the chips fall where they may. But being able to compete on a night in and night out basis, that is really what I am after. I want to go out and compete.”