Jim Leyland stood before the cameras and tape recorders on Monday and said he wasn’t going to get emotional. Fat chance.
He is all emotion, all passion. There are no mysteries about Leyland, who retired after eight years as manager of the Detroit Tigers. What you see is what you get.
What you didn’t get in 2013 was a third trip to the World Series. And what did he say about that? He apologized.
He didn’t lament what the team might have accomplished with a healthy Miguel Cabrera. He didn’t throw his bullpen under the bus. He didn’t share his diet with Prince Fielder. He apologized.
Look, Jim Leyland wasn’t perfect, although we all have our own definitions of what that means. We don’t all agree with every move he made. Some of you might just shake your head at the mere suggestion that he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
But do you remember the pre-Leyland Tigers? They weren’t exactly the franchise of Ty Cobb or Al Kaline. Saying they were bad doesn’t quite cover it. They were putrid.
Detroit lost 106 games in 2002 and went 43-119 in 2003. They signed Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, and a couple arms for 2004 and kept losing. They added Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco for ’05 and still finished 20 games under .500.
Then they hired Leyland to turn that talent into a team, and they immediately went to the World Series for the first of two times. He won 700 regular-season games in eight seasons and went to the postseason after half of them.
Did he have an owner who opened the vault and a general manager who handed him some of the best talent in baseball? No question. Managers with lousy talent don’t get to retire.
But the key was Leyland knowing what to do with that talent. All managers know strategy. This manager knows people. He knew how to orchestrate a clubhouse and get players to play for him.
The lines of communication were always open. There was small talk with every player every day during batting practice. It wasn’t about baseball; it was about family, about problems, about life. He’d hit grounders to infielders with words of encouragement. He’d walk through the clubhouse in his underwear with sanitary socks around those skinny legs, stop at a locker, whisper something in a player’s ear, walk away, and leave the guy with a smile on his face.
Leyland is old school. And, computer printouts and statistical analysis aside, baseball is still an old-school sport. It runs from spring training in February through October, a long, long season, and keeping a team together for that kind of stretch, from the star with the $20 million contract to the guy who may be a strikeout away from being shipped back to the Mud Hens, is no small or easy job. Leyland did it masterfully.
If he had to lower the boom and say something serious to a player it was behind closed doors, never through the media. There were no games. He knew baseball, but he knew people and the people who played for him appreciated that even more.
Then there is this stuff about him starring in Grumpy Old Men. Forget about it.
The real Jim Leyland, the one not everybody got to see every day, is a funny, warm guy. He has a lifetime of stories, 50 years worth in baseball alone. If you watched or listened to his farewell news conference, he slipped in a little vignette about passing gas at Mass. Only Leyland.
He may not have been comfortable, and may have come across as a tad crusty, with the cameras rolling and the recorders running. But they’d leave the room, a couple hours before game time, and Leyland would reach for a Marlboro and his lighter, sip coffee, and the writers would put down their notebooks and settle in to be entertained. It was the best part of covering the Tigers.
Whenever he saw yours truly the first thing he asked was how Perrysburg’s football, basketball, or baseball teams were doing. He never forgot his roots, has never lost his love of hometown.
He loves Pittsburgh, where he got his major league managerial start. It’s where he and Katie make their home. And he loves Detroit. He feels for everything the city and its people are going through and wanted so badly to ease the pain a little with a championship. There’s not a phony bone in his body. The plight of Detroiters would bring him to tears, and there’s nothing phony about a man crying.
He was holding fort in his office one day when his cell phone rang. He looked at the caller ID, hit the answer key, and said, “I got writers in the room; I’ll call you back.” He listened for a couple seconds, uttered a profanity, and hung up.
“Damn LaRussa,” Leyland muttered.
His close friend, former manager Tony LaRussa, would get Jim’s goat by calling him “Sparky Murtaugh.”
Most Tiger fans know who Sparky Anderson was. In Pittsburgh they know who Danny Murtaugh was. They were the crème de la crème of managers.
Just my opinion, but Jim Leyland didn’t take a back seat to either; or many others, for that matter.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.