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Published: Sunday, 3/12/2006

Tigers' new manager has always been a leader

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

LAKELAND, Fla. - Jim Leyland's journey began 1,100 miles from here, in a two-story, white frame house on West Indiana Avenue in Perrysburg.

Out in the backyard, Leyland's father taught him how to throw a baseball and how to catch it.

That is where he collected his first hit - in the grass, right next to the police station.

At age 9, Leyland served as a bat boy for the Perrysburg Merchants.

The following year, he attended his first major league game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.

The following year, he attended his first major league game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium.

He lettered in three sports at Perrysburg High School, graduating in 1962.

Leyland is one of seven children born to James and Veronica Leyland.

His father, who died in 1989, was a catcher for a semi-pro team and a foreman for Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co. And his mother was a homemaker and a huge baseball fan. She passed away in 2004.

Leyland's parents always told their children to remember where they came from, and they have.

His four brothers - Thomas, Bill, Dan and Larry - and one sister - Judy - still reside in Perrysburg or Toledo. Another sister, Sharon, died in 1993.

Leyland, 61, has a great passion for Perrysburg, and vice versa.

In 1992, the Yellow Jackets renamed their high school baseball diamond Jim Leyland Field.

Jim Leyland managed Florida to victory over the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 World Series, but he stayed with the Marlins for only one season after that. Jim Leyland managed Florida to victory over the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 World Series, but he stayed with the Marlins for only one season after that.
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"Jim and I were on the field together after he led the Florida Marlins to the World Series championship [in 1997], and I leaned over to him and said, 'It's a long way from Perrysburg, Ohio,' " said Ned Hoffman of Toledo, a boyhood buddy who remains one of Leyland's closest confidants. "He leans back over and says, 'It's not as far as you think.' "

Now that Leyland has come home again to manage the Detroit Tigers, the organization that signed him to his first professional contract more than 42 years ago, don't be surprised if you see him standing in linesome day at the post office in Perrysburg, or grabbing breakfast at the local Bob Evans.

Leyland is the pride of Perrysburg, along with former NFL coach Jerry Glanville.

"It was a wonderful place to grow up," Leyland said. "It was a pretty small town in those days. It was basically one square mile and everybody walked everywhere. You knew all the kids, you knew all the parents. It was a really neat place."

When Leyland and Hoffman were youngsters at St. Rose Catholic School in Perrysburg, they had a coach who knew very little about the fundamentals of baseball.

Leyland took the lead role - at a very early age.

"We were playing St. Richard in Swanton one day, and Jim was basically coaching us," Hoffman said. "We won the game pretty easily.

"We were leaving the field and walking toward our vehicle - our coach had a 1949 Chevy truck - and right before we get there, Jim says to the coach, 'I'm driving, move over.' So he moves over and Jim drives us all the way back to Perrysburg.

"He was only 11 years old. It was something to see."

Leyland, whose family moved from Sixth Street to West Indiana Avenue when he was 6, played for a trio of Perrysburg baseball teams summer after summer.

He couldn't keep track of which jersey to wear and when, so he slipped on all three of them.

"We used to have one shirt on top of the other," Leyland said. "We'd play for the Perrysburg Bees, take that shirt off, and play for St. Rose, take that shirt off and play for another Pony League team that I can't remember the name of."

'I don't have any long-term plans. I have short-term plans,' says Jim Leyland, who hasn't managed since 1999. 'I don't have any long-term plans. I have short-term plans,' says Jim Leyland, who hasn't managed since 1999.
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Leyland, who was only 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds by the time he reached high school, was Perrysburg's starting quarterback in football, the starting point guard in basketball and the starting catcher in baseball.

"He wasn't the fastest player in the world, and he wasn't the most physical guy, but he was the smartest kid I've ever been around," said John "Doc" Thomas, an assistant football coach, basketball coach and trainer at Perrysburg during Leyland's era. "He was a very good athlete, the guy everybody wanted on their team, but he was not major college material."

Former Perrysburg football coach Jack Donaldson, who later served as an assistant at the University of Toledo and in the NFL, said Leyland's brightest moment may have come during his senior season in 1961.

With the score tied and the Northern Lakes League championship at stake in a game against Genoa, Leyland drove the Yellow Jackets to the 14-yard line. With time running out, Donaldson asked Leyland to put on his kicking shoe and attempt a field goal.

Leyland briefly balked at the suggestion - he had not even attempted a field goal in practice, let alone a game - but then ran back onto the field and delivered the game-winning kick in a 9-6 victory.

"We didn't know if he made it until we saw an official running out of the fog with his arms up," Donaldson said.

In his spare time, Jimbo - as he was known then - helped coach his younger brother's Little League team.

"He was just as scrappy as a manager then as he is now, but I enjoyed it," said Larry Leyland, a Perrysburg resident who is a frequent spectator at Mud Hens games. "He taught me a lot. I was a catcher, just like Jim, just like my dad.

"But one game, my older brother Bill - he helped Jim coach my team - wanted to put me in to pitch. I was nervous as heck - worried I couldn't do it - but Jim was in the dugout pumping his fist, saying, 'Let's go, Larry.'

"He was always encouraging me to do well. I admired him. He was great. And he never got tossed out of any games."

Glanville, 64, is the former head coach of the Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons. He recently completed his first season as the defensive coordinator at the University of Hawaii.

A 1959 Perrysburg graduate, Glanville said he and Jim Leyland - who grew up a few blocks from each other - were frequent visitors to the high school office.

"I remember the principal saying, 'You two will never amount to anything,'‚óŹ" Glanville said. "He said, 'You guys never come to school when the Tigers play an afternoon game. Your sore throats, your absenteeism, go hand-in-hand with the Tigers playing in the afternoon. You'll both end up bums. Neither one of you will amount to anything.' We fooled him."

After graduating from Perrysburg, Leyland went to spring training with Baltimore in 1963, but the Orioles didn't sign him.

On Sept. 21, he signed a free-agent contract with the Tigers at age 19 that paid him $400 a month starting with the 1964 season.

"I was a Cleveland Indians fan growing up and my dad took me to my first Indians game when I was 10 years old in 1954," Leyland said. "But once I signed a contract with Detroit, I instantly became a Tigers fan."

Leyland toiled in such outposts as Lakeland, Cocoa Beach (Fla.), Jamestown (N.Y.), Rocky Mount (N.C.) and Montgomery (Ala.) in six minor league seasons.

He was a solid defensive catcher, but not a very good hitter. Leyland never batted higher than .243, and didn't make it past Double-A.

He was a player/coach at Lakeland in 1969, and then traded in his shin guards and mask in 1970 to accept a full-time coaching job at Montgomery.

In 1971, at age 27, Leyland was named manager of the Tigers' Appalachian League rookie team in Bristol, Va.

"The Tigers basically told me I wasn't good enough as a player, so they asked me if I was interested in coaching or managing," he said. "I told them I'd give it a shot. It's worked out pretty good."

Leyland managed 11 years in the minors with Detroit, and spent his first 18 seasons overall with the organization.

He won three minor leagues championships and three manager-of-the-year awards, and his teams made the playoffs six times. In Leyland's first year with Triple-A Evansville (Ind.) in 1979, the Triplets won the American Association crown.

That was the same year the Tigers' brass bypassed Leyland and picked Sparky Anderson to replace Les Moss as manager in Detroit.

"I wasn't really in the running for the job, to be honest," said Leyland, who was 34 at the time. "They wanted Sparky and they got him."

Detroit desperately wanted to keep Leyland in its organization - general manager Jim Campbell bumped his salary at Evansville to $35,000 - but Leyland left in October of 1981 to become Tony La Russa's third base coach with the Chicago White Sox. He held that job for four seasons.

In 1986, Leyland landed his first big-league managing job with the Pittsburgh Pirates, replacing Chuck Tanner. He led Pittsburgh to three National League East Division titles in the early 1990s, and twice was honored as the league's manager of the year.

His successful Pirates teams included Don Slaught, Lloyd McClendon, Rafael Belliard and Andy Van Slyke, all of whom are on his current coaching staff with the Tigers, as well as third base coach Gene Lamont. Also on those teams were Bobby Bonilla, Doug Drabek and Barry Bonds, whom Leyland had a highly publicized shouting incident with one spring training.

Leyland never made a World Series appearance in 11 seasons with the low-budget Pirates, and he suffered a gut-wrenching Game 7 loss in 1992 to the Atlanta Braves in the NL Championship Series.

"That was a very difficult time for Jim and for the whole family," said the Rev. Thomas Leyland, Jim's older brother and the pastor at St. Rose Parish in Perrysburg. "It was a terrible upset. He was down for a long time after that."

Leyland asked to be released from his contract with the Pirates after the 1996 season and signed on with Florida.

He led the Marlins to a World Series title in 1997, beating the Indians, but Florida owner Wayne Huizenga gutted the team the following year and Leyland departed after a 108-loss season.

He managed the Colorado Rockies in 1999, but bolted after one year, saying he was burned out. He had two years and $4.5 million remaining on his contract.

Leyland spent the next six seasons working as an advance scout for his good friend La Russa and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Leyland, wife Katie, a former Pirates' promotions assistant, and two children, Patrick (14) and Kellie (12), call Pittsburgh home.

Leyland has lived there the last 20 years, but he has put his house up for sale and plans to move his family to the Detroit area at the end of the school year.

Leyland was hired as Detroit's new boss in October.

It's his first managing job since 1999, his first crack at the American League. And he's back with the Tigers' organization for the first time in almost a quarter of a century.

Leyland replaced Alan Trammell, who went 186-300 in three seasons. Trammell's clubhouse was marred by discord a year ago.

Leyland was given a three-year contract by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and president and general manager Dave Dombrowski. Dombrowski worked with Leyland in the White Sox organization and was the Marlins' GM when Leyland won his World Series championship.

"I'm not asking anyone to be patient, I can tell you that," said Leyland, the sixth-winningest active manager with a 1,069-1,131 record in 14 seasons. "People get sick and tired of hearing that. Tiger fans are sick and tired of hearing that. We don't have that long.

"Mike Ilitch is running out of patience. The fans are running out of patience. So I don't have any long-term plans. I have short-term plans. And we better get good pretty quick."

Detroit hasn't won a division title since 1987, or a World Series since 1984, but Dombrowski is confident Leyland will be able to restore the long-lost grandeur to the Olde English D.

Leyland vows he won't walk away from this job, like he did in Pittsburgh, Florida and Colorado.

"I don't think it takes long for somebody to be impressed with Jim Leyland and his knowledge of the game," Dombrowski said. "He knows what he wants to accomplish, and he's done it so many times. He's a great communicator. The players like him."

Leyland, who has been known to smoke a Marlboro or two in the dugout, is a player's manager. His reputation hasn't changed in three-plus weeks of spring training here at Joker Marchant Stadium.

"You can tell he's a straight-shooter," outfielder Craig Monroe said. "Everything seems to be very upbeat. A lot of people talk about whether he still has it. Trust me, he does."

Lamont, a former Tigers first-round pick, has been close to Leyland since their minor league playing days. He was on Ley-land's original coaching staff in Pittsburgh, followed him as the Pirates' manager, and was the best man in Leyland's wedding.

"I know Jim thinks things are rather urgent [in Detroit] and have to happen today," said Lamont, who also managed the White Sox. "Hopefully, he'll get things going back the right way. I know one thing - he'll put everything into it that he has."

Leyland is fired up about managing the Tigers, whose only offseason pickups of note were closer Todd Jones and aging starter Kenny Rogers.

"Jim has always been intense, and he has a certain way he runs a team, but he has mellowed with age," said Father Leyland, who was the celebrant at Jim's wedding in 1987. "This is his fourth [big league] managing job. He realizes now that it takes more than just the manager to win games."

Hoffman knew last year that Leyland, his former next-door neighbor, was ready for a comeback.

"Jim's been chomping at the bit for a while, waiting for the right situation to come along, and it finally did in Detroit," Hoffman said. Leyland expects to see plenty of family and friends from Perrysburg and northwest Ohio in the seats this season at Comerica Park. But he knows if the Tigers don't improve dramatically - they haven't had a winning season since 1993 - things could turn sour quickly.

"Coming home, it's a wonderful thing," Leyland said. "My family's here. And it can also be a very tough thing. I already have talked with my brothers and sister and some of my friends. If you don't have thick skin, you've got to stay away. Because they're going to see their brother get ripped up.

"You're going to get ripped on the talk shows. You're going to get second-guessed. And that's all part of it. I've handled that for a long time. Hopefully, I can handle that again. But you kind of have mixed emotions about coming home. It could be wonderful. It could be brutal."

Contact Blade columnist Ron Musselman at: mussel@theblade.com or 419-724-6474.



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