Commentary

Jim Leyland embodies Detroit's spirit

After what seems like an eternity in the game, Tigers' manager still going strong

Originally Published: October 23, 2012
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Jim LeylandJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAt the age of 67, Jim Leyland is in his 21st season as a manager in the big leagues.

DETROIT -- Fortified by victory, with a second World Series appearance secured in his palm and a smoke in the other, Jim Leyland is the bridge. He's the bridge to Sparky Anderson, the last great manager of the last great team in this town, the connective tissue between the good years, when the world looked up at Detroit, before the dwindling population, the unemployment, and the team he inherited that once lost 119 games, and now, where baseball again reigns.

He's the bridge between the hardhats, the working class, the retired and the downsized, the auto men and the ironworkers and the roofers who remember cracking a beer to Sparky's Boys -- Trammell and Whitaker, Morris and Gibson -- and today's more complicated, multicultural team of Cabreras and Infantes and Valverdes. It is a new breed, but the old man is still there, bridging the gaps, vouching for them.

Leyland is the bridge between Sparky's Time, when the manager was king, the guy who made the players cower, who put his feet up on the desk in his office postgame, shirtless eating a cold piece of chicken and talked baseball, and today, when even in-season interviews take place at a podium with corporate logos in the backdrop. Today, baseball is a general manager's game, and GMs like Dave Dombrowski and the rest of them, the Theos and the Daniels and of course, the Billy Beanes with their stats and computers and indirect (sometimes direct) disdain for Leyland's position, are now the face of the front office, the ones who in extreme cases not only acquire the players but control the lineup as well -- but he's still there.

After a tension-filled Game 3 of the American League Championship Series where the Tigers withstood a final, unsuccessful charge from a lifeless Yankees team to reach the brink of a pennant, catcher Alex Avila said, "When you look at this team, you know who the manager is. There's no question about that."

When delirium neared, and the Tigers finished the job with an 8-1 win and the American League pennant, it was Leyland who remained the bridge, or better said, the reminder that it remains possible to be a hardhat, a grinder, a worker, who can still win in 2012 America. Leyland knows them. When the staging was complete and he held the AL championship trophy above his head after sweeping the Yankees, he spoke to them, thanking "the 3-million-plus fans who never lost the faith" and "all the people who never get any credit" and finally saying with grandfatherly concern, "and everyone, don't drink and drive, including me. Including me." Leyland is not Joe Girardi, his nervous and shaky dugout counterpart during the ALCS, who as a player made the All-Star team and played in the World Series and never managed in the minor leagues yet was handed baseball's greatest jewel of a franchise and the $200 million payroll that comes with managing the Yankees. Leyland arrived here, at the top, in the home clubhouse with plastic covering the lockers, a magnum of champagne in hand telling his boys they could take the next day off, the hard way, by managing 10 years in the Tigers' minor league system before he even got his first big league coaching job, by never making it to the majors as a player, not even for one sunny afternoon. Jim Leyland went from high school to a life in baseball and never even played a game in Triple-A. He represents the unglamorous who nevertheless claimed a piece of the American Dream.

The Tigers are in the World Series for the second time since 2006, and it's easy to accept the notion that 67-year-old James Richard Leyland, the lifelong baseball man from Perrysburg, Ohio, just close enough to Detroit to speak its language, who was born the day before the Battle of the Bulge commenced in 1944, where Warren Spahn was fighting for America instead of pitching for the Boston Braves, is the natural and obvious fit for this team and this battered and durable city, because it creates a cozy little narrative. While it is true that Leyland is the link that connects so many of the dots, it's also true that victory, and not nature, is what has made the Leyland story possible, and without that victory, he would have represented only the bridge to nowhere.

In today's impatient talk-radio culture, even in the final days of the ALCS when the Tigers ultimately buried the panicked and dramatic Yankees, Leyland was hardly secure, hardly Their Guy. The Tigers are in the World Series, but produced just the seventh-best record in an American League of 14 teams. He was hammered throughout the season for his lineup choices. The airwaves and box seats seem not to have forgiven him for the Tigers wading through so much of the regular season apparently content to look up at the Chicago White Sox, especially after following up a 95-win season and the addition of Prince Fielder with a nine-year, $214 million contract by not taking over first place until Sept. 25.

"I had people [questioning us] the whole year, but 16 games is almost 10 percent of the schedule, so that's a lot of games left," Leyland said after the sweep. "And I just reminded everybody when we took our punches all year, 'You know what? Let's just wait 'til the end, and if we've underachieved, I will be the first one to admit it. But let's play out the schedule to see if we underachieve.'

"So, hopefully, we've quieted some doubters now," he said.

When his closer, Jose Valverde, gave up two home runs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 1 to turn a 4-0 lead into a 4-4 extra-innings game, Leyland was the target for again leaving his pitcher in too long and hardly seemed like a candidate for the folksy, blue-collar moment that would define the ALCS, or at least his rejuvenated part of it. While Girardi and the Yankees melted under the heat of elimination before Game 4, Leyland took his car into the shop because his engine light was on. He walked into a diner and the fans bought him breakfast while he waited to get an oil change. He didn't care for the sausage, but the fans around him bathed in his presence, snapping photos of the manager before Leyland left, walking nearly a mile back to his mechanic, chest burning from a half-century of smoking.

When I go home at the end of a baseball season and somebody says, 'Boy, you look bad.' And I always tell them, 'Show me a manager that looks like Paul Newman after 162 games, and I will show you a guy that didn't do a very good job.

-- Jim Leyland

Instead of afterglow, so much of the year contained a gloomy overlay, a nagging impulse that maybe, despite a World Series title, three Manager of the Year Awards, a pennant in Detroit and consecutive division titles for the first time in 77 years, he wasn't the man for the job after all. It hasn't gone unnoticed that Sparky won a title and Leyland -- who won the whole thing with Florida in 1997, as of yet, has not in Detroit. In this town, fans readily acknowledge that winning matters everywhere, but it really matters here, because since World War II ended, every generation gets only one title. The 1945 team beat the Cubs. The 1968 team beat the Cardinals. The 1984 team beat the Padres. And that's it.

Leyland is the first Detroit manager to win two pennants since Mickey Cochrane did it in 1934 and 1935. Sparky never did it, but there is nevertheless nothing cozy about the narrative. These Tigers are battle-tested, having come close last year. They have the game's best pitcher in Justin Verlander, the game's best power combination in Miguel Cabrera and Fielder. They are built to win now. It's been 28 years. During the Yankees series Leyland admitted that even as a sweep of the Yankees formed, stress ate at his insides, the most stressful year, he says, he can remember as a manager. For all the cheers, Jim Leyland has been playing without a net. He is in the World Series and yet is managing without security, without a contract for next season.

"Yeah, I think so, but it is supposed to be," Leyland said about the stress. "I mean, that's just the way it works. I always said I got a kick out of when I go home at the end of a baseball season and somebody says, 'Boy, you look bad.' And I always tell them, 'Show me a manager that looks like Paul Newman after 162 games, and I will show you a guy that didn't do a very good job."

The power of Jim Leyland comes from the bones, from the history, from his demeanor and his evolving outlook. All of the old characteristics, directness, and loyalty, the stuff that people say matters, are embodied within him, at least professionally. Gene Lamont coaches on his staff. Lamont was his roommate back in 1966, when both were with the Rocky Mount Leafs of the Carolina League. Lloyd McClendon is on the staff. McClendon played for him with the Pirates, back when the Pirates were inches from the World Series, and when McClendon managed the Pirates from 2001 to 2005, he called Leyland almost daily. Tony La Russa hired him to his first big league coaching job in 1982, when he was 37. The two spoke weekly, even as they neared a World Series collision in 2006, won by La Russa in five games.

Grow and change and fight or die empty. As a player, way back as a 19-year-old with the Class A Lakeland Tigers, Leyland was listed at 5-foot-11, 175 pounds. Today he is an older and fierce baseball man, slightly hunched, frail-looking in comparison to the young men also wearing the Tigers uniform, but hardly weak. He is emotional, and when he sat at the podium last year after losing the pennant to the Rangers in six games, nearly broke into tears praising the effort of his team, overcome by the residue of competition, in love with the game of baseball. During the ALCS, Leyland's visible humanity stood in deep contrast to that of Girardi, who for all of the pseudo dramatics surrounding which superstars he would bench was managing with something real on his mind: his father's death. Girardi cut a stony figure, mentioning Jerry Girardi's death only because a local newspaper in Peoria, Ill., ran an obituary. Leyland is different. He is gracious and profane and appears grounded, even in the face of the millionaires in their 20s he commands, even in the face of the millions he has earned in the game. There was a time, 13 years ago, when Leyland winning a pennant today didn't seem possible. Back then, in 1999, while managing the Colorado Rockies, he was done. There were so many reasons, but the one that seemed the most irreparable was his belief that he could no longer relate to the modern player, the ones who made so much money, who because of that money were more powerful than the manager and they knew it. The players didn't have to listen. They had agents who had relationships with the general managers who in turn could bypass the manager. The old ways were disappearing.

Today's Leyland is energized by the kids with whom he once seemed to have lost commonality. "They're the guys who win the game," Leyland said of his players. "They're the ones who pay the price." Throughout the clubhouse, the theme was the same.

"He lets us do our jobs. He treats us like men," center fielder Austin Jackson said. Leyland is demanding yet humbled by the difficulty of the job and by the enormously talented players who could do what he could not physically.

"I just think that's their space. You kind of try to orchestrate everything but I think you give the players their space. You trust your players. You trust their ability," he said. "You trust they will have themselves ready to play, and you try to stay out of their way. I mean, they're the show. That's the way it is supposed to be, so I try to show them that respect.

"I think it is one of those things where sometimes you have to earn respect and sometimes you have to lose respect, and so I try to just do my job and not talk too much about it and hopefully you gain their respect," he said. "I've said a lot when you're a manager like I was coming up, I had to earn the players' respect. And when you're another manager that was a big league player and had a good playing career or something like that, you probably have to lose the players' respect. So there is a little bit of difference."

Leyland has never suggested he does not want to manage beyond this season. If anything, he seems to still thrive on the fight. Yet, there is another narrative that is forming without his permission, the one of him winning the World Series and retiring as his friend La Russa did last year.

[+] EnlargeJim Leyland
Kyle Terada/US PresswireThe Tigers are in the World Series for the second time in seven years under Jim Leyland.

La Russa loves Leyland. They met in 1979. La Russa was managing Des Moines in the White Sox system; Leyland was in the Tigers' system, at Evansville in the American Association.

"You have to have a whole lot of strengths. You have to have trust. You have to have respect. He's earned it with players," La Russa said. "He's unique, competitive. He can deal with so many different personalities. Barry Bonds loved Jim Leyland. … [That he had to earn the respect of players because he wasn't a great player] may be our first small difference of opinion. Joe Torre, Don Baylor, Dusty Baker, Lou Piniella, they would get a lot of instant credibility, but that's not so for the great majority of managers. Just because you weren't a good player doesn't mean you automatically become a good manager.

"Even I was a better player than Jim, and I was lousy. He was lousier than me. But he did it the right way. He loved the game and was willing to learn it. When he coached for me in Chicago, he had coached for 11 or 12 years in the minor leagues already. He had respect of guys like Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris. He has a rapport based on something substantial."

"I got sent down on the last day. It was 1979, Evansville. I was not a happy camper," Jack Morris says. "Leyland put up with my whining and told me to stop it. He told me if I wanted to get back there then to work my butt off and remember what it was like down here, to stop feeling sorry for myself. When I got called up, I never went back.

"People respect him for the same reason they respected Sparky. There are many similarities," Morris said. "Sparky was less gentle than Jim. Jim goes out of his way to talk to every member of the roster, especially the pitching staff. Sparky would tell you if he didn't want you on the club. Players want discipline. They want accountability and so does he, and if you're that guy who gets ticked off at him and go to your agent who goes to the GM, Jim's gonna be waiting for you in the clubhouse to have a man-to-man with you. It's his way of saying, 'You might as well talk to me because it's all coming back here anyway.' He wants you to know what it means to wear that uniform and if you do anything to disrespect the uniform, you're done."

The Tigers win the pennant. People are drunk. People are yelling. People are kissing. Orel Hershiser, World Series winner, is in the hotel bar at the Marriott Renaissance Center, decompressing with a drink. The Giants and Cardinals are playing Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. The bar doesn't have a scotch above the Macallan 12-year. He settles for Johnny Walker Black.

During a break, Leyland's face flashes across the TV screen. Some fans hoist their beers. Victory has made him, again, the bridge.

"He's real and I think people want real," Hershiser said. "He makes millions of dollars and drives a Chevy truck. He doesn't care if it's a Chevy. He doesn't care that he's got millions. That's who he is. So often, it isn't what people say as much as it is who says it. Someone else can say the same thing Leyland says, but it won't have the same power as when Leyland says it because he'll do it with his feet up on the desk. He'll be blunt, not corporate. And he's a got a cigarette in his hand while he's saying it. That's real. I mean, how many people even smoke anymore?"