By:  Holly Horning

Well, that was awkward………

You know what I’m talking about if you saw the infamous press conference on Saturday with Al Avila and Ron Gardenhire.

My first thought? That Al Avila keeps reminding us that he is the polar opposite of Dave Dombrowski in almost every way. Especially when he speaks.

But before we delve into this, a public service announcement…..

Dear Detroit Tigers Organization – For the love of God, please hire a media consultant to coach Al Avila. I speak as someone who has been doing this for over 20 years. In this day and age, and especially now that this pandemic has drastically changed how we communicate, there is absolutely no excuse to continue ignoring how you present this team to the world. Media coaches are SOP within MLB for teams’ top executives who make public statements.

Please, because otherwise, anyone who watches these not-ready-for-prime-time events will, instead, end up daydreaming about how they’d rather be having a root canal instead of listening to Al’s hemming and hawing. Your fans are already suffering enough as it is watching this team.

Ok, so now with the conclusion of my cathartic exercise, what is the best reason for a team to hire a media coach?

So you don’t come across as extremely disingenuous as the Tigers did on Saturday afternoon.

Two men who obviously were highly uncomfortable during the conference. Both in words and body language. Especially body language.

Over 30 studies have shown conclusively that a viewer’s impressions are primarily based upon someone’s non-verbal image – their visual appearance as well as their body language. The spoken word only accounts for 7% of what viewers take away. And no matter how much you emphasize things verbally, if the speech doesn’t match the body language, viewers will reject the speaker for not being credible.

Let’s ignore the spoken words for the moment and focus on both men’s body language.

First of all, Avila and Gardenhire were trying to distance themselves from each other as much as possible. Each one hugging the outside edge of the screen that it was almost comical. There was no love there to be seen, folks.

Avila kept his hands and arms in front of his body at all times. One hand gripping the wrist of the other and positioned lower on the body (the deadly “fig leaf” formation). It represents nervousness, defensiveness and lack of credibility. He also blinked a lot while talking which also indicates nervousness as well as a lack of credibility. Unlike Gardenhire, Al kept darting his eyes sideways towards Gardy which indicates insecurity and the desire to escape.

None of Avila’s body language showed a man who was secure and confident in his stance, job or performance. He really did look like a deer caught in front of a Peterbilt.

In contrast, Gardenhire kept his arms behind his back for almost the entire conference. This can be a sign of confidence but it can also mean that you are trying to control your anger. Uncharacteristically, Gardy kept his head down and avoided eye contact with the camera/audience the entire time Avila was speaking. This is in stark contrast to his usual demeanor. He also looked patently unhappy with his tightly-drawn and downward-turning mouth.

Microexpresssions are multiple facial expressions that occur within a fraction of a second. They are involuntary emotional “reveals” that expose the true emotions. And in this case, both Avila’s and Ron’s microexpressions tell a very different story than the Tigers’ official story does.

The most telling part of the video was seen at the very end. Normally, when saying goodbye to a beloved employee in front of others, you take the time to turn to them and wish them well. This requires strong eye contact followed by person-to-person contact such as a handshake, hand-to-shoulder touch or even a hug.

This is what would have been expected of Avila to initiate with Ron. Facing him directly and then either shaking his hand or embracing him.

Instead, both men kept their distance and staunchly refused to look at or even acknowledge each other. They could not have fled the stage any faster, turning in opposite directions and fleeing the stage.

Still believe that this was all of Gardy’s doing?

Let’s continue with the evidence.

Second, the timeline. Here’s what’s been documented:

2:00PM–2:30PM: Gardy does his daily presser with media. No signs, no hints, nothing unusual. He signs off to say he’s got to get back to his office and complete the lineup card.

2:30PM–3:30PM: Within this window, Al Avila goes to Gardy’s office for their regular meeting.

4:00PM: Avila is on the field telling people that Gardy is leaving.

4:15PM: Media receives notification that a press conference has been set for 5PM, 45 minutes later.

4:30 PM: Team meeting is called.

5:00PM–5:15PM: Press conference. Let’s note for the record that with Zoom conferencing, any credentialed reporter can attend. But the Tigers only took softball questions (that included fishing) from a smattering of local reporters. Some of them, including Johnny Kane, were called upon twice. No national journalists, who ask probing questions, were recognized.

5:30PM: – Shortly before 5:30, statements were published from Chris Ilitch and Al Avila.

6:00PM: A video montage tribute of Gardy as the Tigers manager starts playing on Comerica’s big screen just as the game is starting.

All a little too quick, don’t you think? Statements released within minutes. Video work, which takes days to produce, is presented within an hour of the announcement.

Even the local Detroit media was shocked. Journalists on the media call all claim unanimously that there was absolutely no hint that Gardy was even thinking about leaving. One even said it was “totally improbable.”

Another local beat reporter said that the whole video tribute and official statements released so very quickly were “highly suspicious.”

Both reporters dared not to write this for their newspapers. Instead, they tweeted their comments.

Jack Morris, on the tv broadcast, was also questioning the story. He said he was very surprised at the timing and then hinted that this came from the Tigers, not Gardy.

Still have your doubts? We’ve got more evidence.

First, we know the Tigers forced several of Gardy’s long-time coaches out after last year and replaced them with Leyland loyalists. Next, the recent comments by Gardy about players being switched positionally that painted an unhappy, albeit diplomatic, picture of who exactly was calling the shots.

Next, the stories of whether Gardy was going to receive a contract extension. Within the past week, other teams were finalizing contracts with their managers that were set to expire at the end of the month. It is extremely rare for an organization to finish the year with a manager left in limbo.

Then the timing of this past weekend. It was the Tigers last homestand of the year. And due to the pandemic, Al Avila does not travel with the team on road trips. So this was the only time this could be done.

This had to be the weekend to discuss Gardy’s future with the team.

Besides, his last win was earlier in the week. The 1,200th of his career. How convenient.

And then there is Avila’s claim to be surprised by Ron’s decision. During a time of Covid concerns and Gardy’s multiple statements about his worries for his health.

So fans are being told that despite this, the team didn’t touch base with him regularly to gauge his concerns? That they were “surprised” at his decision?

This doesn’t hold water.

And neither does the characterization of Gardy’s sudden decision.

We’ve known this man for awhile, even before he came to Detroit. He is not a human being prone to wild emotions, nor impetuous ones. He is thoughtful, stable and even-keeled in his decision-making. Except when it comes to umpires.

He would not logically have made such a sudden decision, on the fly, in the middle of a series, let alone less than 2 hours before a game. And before he had the chance to sit down and tell his coaches.

It just doesn’t fit his narrative.

It also doesn’t make sense for him to leave with just a week’s worth of games in the season left to play.

So what happened?

If you take all the evidence listed above, there’s only one scenario that makes sense.

In their Saturday meeting, Al Avila most likely told Gardy that the Tigers would not be extending his contract. Perfect timing as it was the last homestand and it would allow the Tigers to make the announcement on Sunday (or after Saturday’s game) and play their video tribute before the team left on its last road trip. A perfect little bow being tied.

Or so Avila thought.

But it’s likely that Ron thought about whether there would be any benefit to staying and traveling with the team one last time. He would be taking an increased risk for Covid exposure by doing this – and for a team that no longer wanted him. There really was no upside.

His health risks are real and there’s no denying that he was concerned about contracting the virus. You can’t blame him for deciding that it wasn’t worth the risk to stay for one last week.

This, of course, also supports the historical evidence about the Tigers who try to avoid firing employees, at least publicly, at all costs. They don’t like the controversy. Dave Dombrowski was “released from his contract”, Brad Ausmus’ “contract was not extended” and multiple coaches “retired” only to resurface in other baseball jobs.

And the final bit of evidence? The sudden onslaught of local media articles (all conveniently published at the same time) that kept pushing and pushing the narrative that it was all about Gardy’s decision. Textbook reporting strategies followed by media saturation in order to squelch public questioning.

The Tigers foolishly thought that by getting these two together on video would show that there was no friction between the 2 parties and would support the narrative being pushed.

But what they did only reinforced that the Tigers were pushing him out and thereby forcing Ron’s hand.

Not only is this team the very last to adopt baseball’s newest strategies, they are also the last to adapt the newest communication strategies that support an effective, strong brand.

This is a demanding, technology-driven media world, even more so today. The Tigers may be a major league team but their tactics are strictly minor league.

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31 thoughts on “A TIDY LITTLE BOW

  1. I thought Gardy had said at the beginning of the season this was his last? Of course good ole boy Lloyd McClendon wasted no time at all expressing his desire to get annointed with the job. Being he is a Leland buddy that might actually happen-just more glum news should it materialize.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. With the unresolved covid situation, and the MLB contract up next year it doesn’t seem like a ideal time to be hiring a brand new coach especially from outside the organization with all new staff. Furthermore, the rebuild has been set back at least a year along with all your key draft picks. This looks like an ideal setup to have AA just remove the “interim” tag from McClendon and declare him the coach. I would like your opinion Holly on what you think AA is really going to do about a new coach?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You make a very convincing case, Holly. So now that we suspect Gardy’s departure was an active decision by the Tigers, it gets more interesting. What kind of manager have we decided we want to take us to the next level (and I’m hoping that’s the goal)…. Gardy’s departure does not upset me; but I’ll be looking at who his successor is before I can assess if this action is constructive.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A name for new Manager that I’d like to see get a shot….Matt Quantraro…the Bench Coach for Tampa Bay.. Young but a long varied History in the game;;;great teacher and well respected……….

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Insightful as always Holly. What an incredibly low bar we have in Detroit for our professional sports teams and local media. And just when we think the bar can’t get any lower they find a way to drop it a few more pegs.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Back in 2019 you could see Gardenhire was the odd man out and not on the same page as Ilitch and Avila. I have a feeling Gardenhire was a better coach than he had the opportunity to show since he had to operate in the dark, dank shadow cast by Jim Leyland. I have zero confidence in this organization.

    Liked by 7 people

  7. In 2020, Gardy entered the final year of his three year contract with the Tigers. The 2020 Tigers have performed much better than most people expected. It is not unreasonable to assume that Gardy believed he had earned a contract extension. It is also possible that Avila had caused Gardy to believe a contract extension was forthcoming. At the last minute, however, Avila told Gardy that his contract would not be extended- and Gardy summarily “retired.”

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I didn’t even listen to the announcement, in keeping with my resolution not to be frustrated by the broadcast team, but the body language reminded me of trying to sell my mother on the lie while my sibling stood by desperately wanting to tell the truth. When this franchise finally does come to its senses I hope they do it unannounced with a metaphorical explosion that takes out AA, the Leyland puppet master, and the miser and misanthrope in the owner’s office.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. You really nailed it, Holly. During their announcement last week, it was so obvious that these 2 guys had just been through a fight with each other, and Gardy lost. Ilitch and Avilla have absolutely ruined one of the best major league franchises around, and nobody can do a thing to save this organization. Thanks for your good work Gardy, and good luck. I highly suggest that you write a book about your time with the Tigers.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. There is still a chance the Tigers can finish last in our division. Why not reward the staff that has really taken hold of this rebuild and placed the Tigers in what Avila said is an unprecedented “position to win”. LLoyd is clearly the next puppet coach for the puppet GM of the “spend the least amount possible” owner. It’s hard to stay a fan of this version of the Detroit Tigers.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Holly, this is a phenominal post. Painful and awkward describes the entire Avila regime to a t. I honestly feel like the Lions and the Tigers are in a grudge match to see who is the worst organization in pro sports right now. The Tigers are such a bush league operation from the top down and everything screams ineptitude. Gardenhire brought a semblance of competence and respectability, and the Tigers botched that too.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Claude, I think I nailed it. See my post from Sept 20. I will also add that I think Leyland betrayed Gardy and should also “retire” if he had any integrity. I would keep my eye on Fredi Gonzalez as new manager if he is desperate enough for a new job (like Gardy) and is willing to put up with Al’s BS and “leadership” style.


  12. THANK YOU so much for this insightful, in-depth article, Holly! I will be looking forward to your piece about what AA may do to officially fill Gardy’s shoes and hope that you include Leyland’s involvement in this decision. I would truly love to know why Leyland continues to have such a huge chokehold on this organization. (That may be yet another blog!)

    Liked by 4 people

  13. What a wonderful insightful article, too bad you could not read the body language of the Avila extension, but Avila had to do that himself. Avila never comes across as confident, too reliant on others. I will never understand how he got an extension.


    • Hi, Jan – Thank you for the kind words. I actually just reviewed Avila’s contract extension press conference. Chris Ilitch did not attend (which says it all) and the presser was announced at the last minute, late in the day on a Friday of a long holiday weekend. Don’t forget the contract length was not announced and questions about it went unanswered. Everything about it screams intentional and a dire need by the team to avoid scrutiny. So Avila made his own announcement. It was all of 1.5 minutes and he took 2 questions in the clips being offered. The national reporters were unable to attend given the holiday and short notice. This time, Al had a podium to hide behind but he was clenching and fidgeting with his hands. It’s a good question you ask and the desperate need to keep criticism and scrutiny at bay tells us that no one believes this was a good thing. So we need to ask why. In the end, it’s always better for an owner to have a GM who takes the hits instead of himself. Competent employees tend to direct attention to the owner when things don’t go as planned. Simply speaking, Al is Chris’ buffer. Thanks for keeping the dialog going! – Holly

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks so much Holly for that information! As someone who once aspired to be a journalist I really appreciate your writing and investigative detail.. It is a pleasure to read with a good cup of coffee.

        Liked by 2 people

  14. Here’s how it likely went down on Saturday – Al: Sorry Ron but we are going to go in a different direction next year, so you won’t be back. But Chris and I have come up with this great idea that we will announce your retirement and honor you at tomorrow’s final home game. Ron: Oh #@#$ No !! You’ve been making all my decisions for me this year and you’re NOT making this one. “I will step out right now”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So in your version Gardy grew a backbone after nearly 3 years of merely collecting his paycheck, all the while knowing from the start that he had no responsibility, and only limited accountability?

      Liked by 1 person

  15. An Article published in “the Athletic” yesterday reveals a conversation Gardy had with his son the previous week in Minnesota where Gardy told is son this was his last year. That I don’t doubt, and I do think there was significant friction with the front office that Gardy plainly had had it. Gardy will never through anyone under the bus, but clearly there were issues.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. When this blog asked us what we thought of Gardy’s retiring, I believed that this isn’t what Gardenhire wanted. I was sure he was let go. No matter his health, I truly believe Gardy would have finished the last week of the season, or he was going to die within a month. I was pretty certain it was the former. Re a new manager, it can only be LM. Who else would take it now, knowing they will be gone when the team is sold, and have to put up with all the YKW going on behind the scenes?

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Good post, Holly. Good bye, Gardy. Happy retirement. We seem to be saddened by the deterioration of one of baseball’s great franchises. It’s been painful, and the worst may be yet to come. These really are mournful times.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. I had a nightmare that the Tigers and Lions were both sold. The reason it was a nightmare was they’d merely switched owners. So nothing changed. The sports scene in Detroit is like “Waiting for Godot.”

    Liked by 2 people

  19. My Hamilton-obsessed self really wanted to be “in the room where it happened” to know the truth; and I think you’ve explained it right here. Good for Gardy for not meekly going along with the plan. I wish him the best.

    Liked by 3 people

  20. My first disappointment with Gardy was when I realized he took the job without control over who was on his coaching staff. He has been around long enough not to be surprised at being fired so I doubt that would keep him from finishing the season. So I am thinking that Tiger management (CI, AA, JL) did something to really tick him off. I do think he may have health issues, but he still would have finished. My kingdom for a journalist!

    Liked by 3 people

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