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Gardner Jr., Menhart bring a little bit of southeastern Connecticut to Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published July 31. 2014 4:00AM
Tim Martin/The Day
Syracuse Chiefs manager Billy Gardner Jr., right, of Waterford, jokes in the dugout during Wednesday night's Triple-A baseball game at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. Gardner is in his first season managing the team, part of the Washington Nationals organization.

Pawtucket, R.I. - They dug deep into the memory banks, pulling out pieces of their shared past.

Billy Gardner Jr. remembers spending the summer of 1987 on the New London American Legion baseball team with Paul Menhart.

Menhart recalls Gardner refereeing some of his Fitch High School basketball games. And his brother, Dave, played baseball with Gardner.

"Didn't I give you a T?" said Gardner, who grew up in Waterford, where his parents still live.

"Needless to say, we've got history," Menhart said.

They have plenty of time to reminisce about their southeastern Connecticut glory days now that they're both members of the Syracuse Chiefs coaching staff, the Class AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals.

Now 47, Gardner is in his first year as a manager on the Class AAA level, spending the last seven seasons coaching Tampa's Class AA team in Montgomery, Ala.

Menhart, the pitching coach, earned a promotion in the offseason. He's been in the Nationals organization for nine years.

Before Syracuse's game at Pawtucket Wednesday, they sat in the visitors' clubhouse at McCoy Stadium, telling stories and cracking jokes. They also spoke about their close working relationship.

"This has been seamless, really," Gardner said. "We share a lot of the same beliefs and how to go at things from a baseball standpoint. The manager-pitching coach relationship is probably one of the most important relationships in the game."

They took different paths to their current jobs.

Gardner played two seasons at the Class A level in the Kansas City organization before starting a long and successful coaching career. He piled up 1,262 career wins through last season.

Injuries shortened now 45-year-old Menhart's pitching career but not before he reached the major leagues, appearing in 41 games over three seasons. In his first major league appearance in 1995 for Toronto, he struck out Mark McGwire. He also pitched for Seattle (1996) and San Diego (1997), finishing with a 5-9 career record and a 5.47 earned run average.

In 2001, Menhart began his coaching career for an independent league team in California. Then he returned to college to earn his physical education degree at Western Carolina, where he also served as the pitching coach.

The Washington Nationals called to offer him a job and he's been with them ever since.

"It was a calling, for sure," Menhart said. "I just get an unreal high out of watching kids get it and be successful. I realized that when I was in the Independent League."

When the Syracuse manager's job opened last offseason, Menhart was asked his opinion about Gardner.

"Our farm director asked me about Billy Gardner," Menhart said. "I said you should have hired him yesterday. It's the truth.

"You don't stay 20 years in this game without doing something right. I already knew his personality and his ability to coach even though it was a long time ago when I had him as a (New London Legion) coach. It was an absolute no-brainer."

They've formed a winning combination. Syracuse resides in first place in the International League's North Division. And they've helped developed a good working environment.

Gardner called Menhart the best pitching coach that he's been around.

"He's got a lot of pluses as a pitching coach," Gardner said. "He communicates well. He gets under the hood and knows how to fix things. He knows how to handle the pitching staff. He knows when to get on a guy or pat him on the butt, which is key to coaching."

Both Gardner and Menhart are thrilled with their situation.

Managing in Syracuse brings Gardner closer to his family - wife, Kristie, 20-year-old Josh, Jaycie, 12, and Abbie, 10 - who live about five hours away in Westlake, Ohio. The proud father reports that Abbie is the first girl to play on the travel baseball team in the state.

Menhart's home base is Savannah, Ga., where his wife, Bitsy, and their three children - 20-year-old Alison, Jamie, 17, and Michael, 14 - reside. Alison, who majors in broadcast journalism at the University of Georgia, spent two months this summer living with her father in Syracuse while completing an internship with the Chiefs.

They both appreciate the sacrifices that their families have made during their careers, which they hope continue long into the future.

Gardner is in his 24th season as a minor league manager, at least that's what he thinks.

"All those bus rides, I've lost track," Gardner said. "I've been fortunate to be in it as long as I have."

"This might be his last one having to deal with me," Menhart cracked.

g.keefe@theday.com

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