Billy Gardner Jr. has spent more than two decades coaching and managing in the minor leagues and has loved it all. Next season, he was expecting to return to Montgomery, Ala. for his eighth season as the manager of the Biscuits, Tampa Bay’s Class AA affiliate. He enjoyed working for the Rays and the Biscuits. “I was very happy there,” he said. “I coulda ran for mayor in Montgomery.”
But earlier this winter, he received a call from Doug Harris, the Nationals assistant general manager and vice president of player development and former farm director. “It really came out of left field,” Gardner said. After former Class AAA Syracuse Manager Manager Tony Beasley agreed to shift to a minor league field coordinator, some within the Nationals organization had suggested Gardner as a possible replacement. Harris and Gardner talked, and then Harris offered the position. Excited, Gardner accepted the first AAA job of his career.
“It’s close to home, about five [hours] and change from there, so it gives me an opportunity to go home a little bit,” said Gardner, a New London, Connecticut native. “It’s a great organization and I’ve heard nothing but good things and I’m really grateful to be with it.”
Gardner, 47, grew up in a baseball-rich family. His father, Billy Gardner, was an infielder for the Baltimore Orioles, New York Giants, Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins, among others, and later managed in the major leagues. Gardner was on two World Series-winning teams: the Giants in 1954 and New York Yankees in 1961. He later managed the Twins for five years from 1981 to 1985 and then the Kansas City Royals in 1987.
Gardner Jr., a first and third baseman, was drafted by the Royals in the 50th round of the 1987 draft out of Mitchell College in New London, Conn. and played two seasons in the minor leagues. Two years later, he was a coach in the New York Mets system. His first managing job was with the rookie ball Butte Copper Kings in Montana in 1995. Bob Schaefer, now a special assistant to Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, brought Gardner with him to the Boston Red Sox as a minor league manager a year later. Gardner spent seven seasons in the Red Sox minors leagues, then three years in the Royals minor leagues and a year in the Cincinnati Reds minor leagues — all as a manager.
In 2007, the Rays hired him to manage the Biscuits. In seven seasons there, he compiled a 497-475 record, a .511 winning percentage. He managed top players, such as Evan Longoria, David Price, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, in the well-regarded Rays minor league system. He led the Biscuits to a Southern League title in 2007, was named the league’s best manager prospect in 2010 by Baseball America and was honored as the Southern League Manager of the Year in 2012 after a 74-63 season. Overall, Gardner has a 1,262-1,249 record in 19 years as a minor league manager.
Through 24 years in the minors, Gardner has built a connection with many across the sport, even in the Nationals organization. Close friend Schaefer is in Washington. Gardner has gotten to know director of pro scouting Bill Singer during his scouting trips to Montgomery over the years. He also got to know Jay Robertson, another special assistant to Rizzo, when he was scouting the Arizona Fall League and Gardner was a manager there. And, of course, there is Paul Menhart, the Class AA Harrisburg pitching coach who was promoted to Syracuse this offseason. Menhart and Gardner were American Legion teammates in Connecticut “back in the stone ages,” Gardner said.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity to work with him,” he added. “And the transition into the organization will be seamless working with people like Paul, who I know.” Joe Dillon, a former major leaguer with the Marlins, Brewers and Rays who is making his professional coaching debut, will round out the coaching staff as the Syracuse hitting coach.
Gardner prides himself in being not only an instructor for players but also a confidante. He understand that at this level of professional baseball he isn’t normally tasked with overhauling players’ mechanics or swings, but providing the final tweaks and push to the majors.
“As a manager you wear a lot of different hats and psychologist is one,” he said. “Friend is another. I think you have to be able to connect with the player in order to teach them. I think communication is the No. 1 priority. I think the strategy, the X’s and O’s, there’s a lot of good baseball people who know a lot about the game. But being able to connect with people, develop the relationships and people skills part of the job is really important today. I’m hands-on and I have expectations that, if you lay out, people will meet.”
In a month or so, Gardner will pull on a Nationals uniform in Viera for spring training and begin his 25th season as a minor league coach or manager. A new challenge awaits with a new organization and level of the minors, but he relishes the work of developing players.
“I love every day that I’m teaching in the minor leagues,” he said. “I never look too far ahead or too far back. I really just enjoy helping kids and players get better and eventually make the major leagues.”