Jim Leyland, the 66 year old manager of the Detroit Tigers, is pretty much an “old school” guy. He can be grumpy like your grandfather, yet articulate in a profanity-laced conversation. He’s an emotional man who truly cares for his players, but is not afraid to apply tough love and discipline. Most importantly, he has made adjustments in dealing with the new era athlete without compromising his basic principals. That’s why Leyland, in his 20th year as a major league boss, is considered by many experts as one of the best in the business.
There were rumors at the beginning of the 2011 season that Leyland, along with general manager Dave Drombowski, were on the hot seat in Detroit. To make matters worse, star first baseman Miguel Cabrera had an alcohol relapse prior to spring training that created a circus atmosphere and a potential distraction. Leyland successfully defused the situation, but not at the expense of Cabrera.
“Don’t get caught up with all this (expletive) about Miguel Cabrera,” Leyland scolded the media.”It doesn’t have a (expletive) thing to do with anything.
“Cabrera is in the best shape of his life and will have a great season.”
That prediction was right on the mark. The giant Venezuelan won the American League batting title and is an MVP candidate. You see, Leyland has this uncanny influence on players, from super stars to minor league kids promoted for a brief cup of coffee. They all believe in him.
A native of small-town Perrysville, Ohio, Leyland actually broke in with the Tigers as a catcher in 1963. He gave it everything he had as a player, but had better skills as a dugout administrator. Numerous career minor leaguers have excelled with this gift, including Tommy Lasorda, Buck Showalter and Fredi Gonzalez, proving that you don’t need to be a Hall of Fame icon to be a successful big league pilot.
Leyland had his first taste as a manager with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986, a team that he would direct for an entire decade. And right off the bat, he would have his hands full with a brash, budding super star named Barry Bonds. Salty Pittsburgh fans will tell you that Bonds busted his behind for Leyland, and the pair had a father and son-type relationship. It’s well documented that Barry’s failure to deliver in the playoffs always sank the Pirates ship. Still, Leyland would be recognized for his leadership by winning National League Manager of the Year awards in 1990 and again in 1992.
Leyland’s solid reputation caught the eye of Drombowski, then the general manager of the Florida Marlins, and the scrappy skipper would lead the “Fish” to a World Series title in 2003. Making a big splash in the seven game affair was Cabrera, a 21 year old rookie, who blasted a memorable home run against Roger Clemens. When Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga broke up the team to cut payroll the following year, Leyland remained loyal through a disappointing situation, but resigned soon thereafter.
“I thought I was hired to win championships,” he would say at a press conference in Miami. “Apparently that’s not what the owner wanted.”
Leyland would eventually sign a new deal to manage the Colorado Rockies in 1999. But things didn’t work out there either, and he walked away with two years left on his contract. After a few years of low profile employment as a scout and adviser, Jim found another manager’s job to his liking when Dombrowski, now a Tigers executive, called his old friend to see if there was any interest. Obviously, it was a feel good gig that Leyland couldn’t refuse. The team had good potential and Detroit fans were hard-working, blue collar folks. It was like Steel City all over again.
Leyland would make a huge impact in his opening 2006 season, guiding the Tigers to an 95-67 record and a trip to the Fall Classic. Again, he would be voted “Manager of the Year, this time in the American League. But after a second place showing the following year, the Tigers experienced some up and down campaigns. And when the club finished with a mediocre 81-81 slate in 2010, despite the acquisitions of Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta, they were branded as underachievers.
Under pressure to produce in the final year of his contract, Leyland saw his team get off to a slow start and at one point, Detroit trailed the first place Cleveland Indians by seven games. Dombrowski would come to the rescue by obtaining Delman Young and Doug Fister. Cabrera had a blistering September, hitting .429, and Cy Young shoe-in Justin Verlander mowed down the opposition to lead the Tigers into the playoffs. But at the end of the day, Leyland was lauded for being loyal to his players and trusting them when the going got tough.
“Jim’s a people person,” says Verlander. “Everybody knows he’s got our back.”
Leyland has had to make some adjustments at this stage of his career. He still gets fired up, but at times is more philosophical. No longer able to smoke in the dugout, he puffs a Marlboro on the clubhouse ramp. Fast approaching 3200 games as a big league manager, he deflects praise and puts things into perspective, even though he will run the Tigers for another year.
“I don’t think it’s about me,” says Leyland. It’s about 25 guys contributing.”
As for Detroit’s current playoff success, Leyland refuses to make it a big deal.
“We had a great season and we’re here,” he reflects. “Now it’s a new season.”