Few know a man better than his friends, and Jim Leyland has plenty of them in Perrysburg.
So, when the Detroit Tigers manager announced his retirement Monday after eight seasons with the club, at least a sampling of Leyland’s hometown friends and acquaintances from Perrysburg High School were not shocked.
“I’m not completely surprised,” said longtime Perrysburg High School baseball coach Dave Hall. “It was a great season, but there was a lot of pressure put on him. They came through pretty good, but I think October was very rough.
“I thought maybe he’d come back for one more year to give it another shot, but it didn’t totally catch me by surprise. He’s got to be a future hall-of-famer. For the critics that criticized everything, I think they’re wrong because he managed very well. He can’t control slumps and those sorts of things, but when you’re 68 it probably wears on you a little bit.”
Leyland officially stepped down roughly 36 hours after the Tigers were eliminated from postseason play by the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
It was a disappointing exit for a team rich in starting pitching and offensive firepower. That combination was masterfully assembled by club CEO, president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, and financed by an extremely generous owner in Mike Ilitch.
Whatever ideas Dombrowski and Ilitch had regarding Leyland beyond the 2013 season — at least according to what was revealed in Monday’s news conference — became moot on Sept. 7. That was when Leyland said he shared his exit plan with Dombrowski, who in turn told Ilitch.
“Maybe he feels bad that he was unable to bring the Tigers a championship,” said John “Doc” Thomas, who was Leyland’s head basketball coach (1959-62), and an assistant when Jim quarterbacked the Yellow Jackets’ football team. “He’s had several opportunities, and they just haven’t cashed through. Maybe he feels bad about that, and maybe shares part of it as being his fault in some way.”
“He might figure that it’s best for all concerned if he would leave and, maybe with all the good players they have and all the money [the ownership has] put out, that somebody else can get them the title. From what I know of him and about him, that might be what he thinks.”
Perrysburg High School athletic director Ray Pohlman shares that theory.
“Jim is a total man of true character, and in my estimation he’s doing this for the Tigers organization, [to give it] a fresh start,” Pohlman said. “He’s taken them about as far as he can take them, and he’s just an incredible, humble man.
“He thinks about team first, just like we talk about at the high school and collegiate level. He’s thinking of team and [upper] management first over Jim Leyland.
“This year the wins were tougher, and I’m sure the losses were tougher to take. Jim always said he had a one-year contract and he’d make that decision whether he’d come back each year.”
Hall’s baseball program, and Pohlman’s athletic department in general, have been the beneficiary of Leyland’s generosity over the years. The obvious example was the reported $100,000 the Tigers manager donated to the creation of Leyland Family Field, Perrysburg’s new on-campus baseball-softball complex.
“He gives so much to the Detroit area, and so much back to the kids, including at Perrysburg High School,” Pohlman said “He was always giving back to the school, and he didn’t have to make a big scene out of it. He did it in a humble, secretive way. He did it because he loves kids, and he loves Perrysburg.”
One of the many reasons Leyland loved his hometown was Thomas, whom he still visited occasionally.
“I don’t think he’s changed at all over the years, only in appearance,” Thomas said. “He was a leader for us. Nobody appointed him anything. He just took over when the situation called for it — in football and basketball.
“He was able to come up with a solution or make the right play, so the other kids just sort of looked to him. Like, ‘Jim, what do we do now?’ He was a very good kid. Happy go lucky. He’s probably had the same attitude all along.
“He loves people, and loves to be around them. He’s always had that. He’s still interested in people from Perrysburg and still considers this his home, even though he works in Michigan and lives in Mt. Lebanon [Pa.].
“He comes down here quite a bit, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. He stops in, talks to his friends for a little bit, and then drives back to Detroit. There are a lot of people who don’t do that. He grew up with a small-town attitude, and he’s never lost that. Friends will always be friends.”
Hall echoes that sentiments.
“He’s one of the most honest, down-to-earth people I’ve ever met,” Hall said. “He still remembers where he came from. The people he grew up with in Perrysburg absolutely adore him.
“He’s always acted like he never left. He’s a genuine person. When you see him tearing up and crying, it’s real. What I’ve always been impressed with is that he treats everybody like they’re somebody, and that’s pretty neat when you’re a famous person like he is.”
The connection is strong both ways.
“My wife became an avid Tiger fan over the last several years because of Jim Leyland,” Pohlman said. “We’re going to miss him being the manager because you could relate Perrysburg with the Tigers. I’m saddened by it, but in the same way I’m happy for him and his family.”
Hall has a couple retirement ideas for Leyland.
“We do have a freshman [baseball coaching] job that’s open, and I would hire him in a heartbeat if he wants to keep coaching,” Hall joked. “I’ve never been able to really sit down with him and talk because he’s been a manager just about all the years I’ve known him, and he’s always got to be somewhere.
“I would love to have an hour, just me and him in a room, talking baseball. Maybe I’ll get that chance now. We’ve got his nephew who is going to be in our program next year, so maybe we’ll get him out for a game.”
Tim Muir, owner of Fat Jack's in Perrysburg, said he heard Leyland would bring players or coaches that he was close with home and his mother would put together a spread.
"It is terrible [news today]. I feel bad about it. He didn't have a bad year in Detroit."
Muir, who said his bar is full of Leyland supporters and stories — especially with his Thursday night crowd — said it was a huge deal when Leyland became manager of the Tigers in 2006.
Perrysburg Township Trustee Gary Britten has known the Leyland family his whole life. He played ball with Leyland's brother Larry and was coached in little league by another older brother of Jim, Bill.
"For him to be so successful, and know his family and how good it is, I'm so happy to see how blessed he's been," Britten said. "He's had tough expectations the last couple of years."
Britten's son, Brian, has worked with the Tigers’ organization for 13 years for the public relations department. Gary said his son would talk to Leyland almost every day, even in the offseason.
"I haven't talked to him yet today, but I'm sure it is tough on Brian," Britten said. "Brian has so much respect for Jim."
Matt Thompson contributed to this story.