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The Detroit Tigers are AL Central Division champions for a second straight season. They are in the playoffs for a second straight year. The opening round started swimmingly; the Tigers carried a 2-0 series lead into Tuesday’s Game 3 in Oakland.
Somehow, all of this has translated into a summer [and now fall] of discontent with and for manager Jim Leyland, the Perrysburg product who is in the final year of his contract.
After a 5-4 win Sunday in Game 2 of the ALDS, Leyland’s post-game press conference was a smorgasbord of second guessing. Why did he use this pinch-runner in this situation? Why this pinch-hitter? Why that relief pitcher? And on and on it went.
Everything was coming up roses for the Tigers, but Leyland was treated like the thorn.
At one point, a writer prefaced his question by saying, “Sounds like you didn’t win the game, Jim, but …”
It was a microcosm of his and the Tigers’ entire season, one that began with extraordinary expectations, but one of ups and downs, one that required a late hot streak and a late collapse by the White Sox to get Detroit to its promised playoff land.
If it wasn’t the regular media it was the social media, the twitter-verse, the chat rooms, the Internet blogs, and the call-in shows.
Managers are often lightning rods. Their lineups, their substitutions, their moves, their pitching rotations, their use of the bullpen are all right there for the critics.
But Jim Leyland? He’s been at this for 21 years, he’s won a World Series, his teams have been in the playoffs seven times, and only 14 managers in the history of the game — none active — have managed or won more games. The Tigers are in the playoffs for the third time in his seven seasons after having been there three times in the 42 years before Leyland showed up.
Here’s a prediction: If the Tigers win the World Series, the 67-year-old Leyland will retire. He is envious of the way his close buddy Tony LaRussa won last year’s championship with the Cardinals, then walked away on his own terms.
But it will be interesting to see what happens if the season ends short of that goal.
A year ago, as the Tigers were bearing down on their first division title in 24 seasons, the team gave president-general manager Dave Dombrowski a four-year contract extension. Leyland got one year, this one.
It was supposed to be easy after the free agent signing of Prince Fielder to mesh with Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the order. There was speed ahead of them in Austin Jackson and a bevy of bats behind them. With a rotation led by Justin Verlander and a bullpen anchored by Jose Valverde, what could possibly prevent the Tigers from winning 100 games?
The Jackson-Fielder-Cabrera combo did its job with the latter even winning a Triple Crown. The pitching staff was good, not quite great. The bevy of bats from 5-thru-9 in the order mostly disappeared. The hitting and pitching often did not mesh. It was one of those years.
Still, Leyland steered the team to a title and into the playoffs. When that was accomplished he acknowledged he had “taken some pretty good hits. We’ve survived them.” But he has refused to talk about his contract status or the future.
Baseball insiders, his peers, consider Leyland among the game’s best managers. His players respect and generally like him. His personality runs the gamut from testy to tears. Through the years he’s grown a thick skin.
And he’s needed it this season.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.