Sports
1:00 am
Fri October 25, 2013

What shouldn't be forgotten about Jim Leyland's baseball career

A story from John U. Bacon

This week, Detroit Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland announced his retirement. He was an ‘old school’ manager, relying more on his guts than a spreadsheet. His decisions irritated some fans, but not his results. 

When you’re 68, working in a young man’s game, announcing your retirement is not a surprise. But there are a few underappreciated qualities about this grizzled veteran that are worth remembering.

Jim Leyland was a baseball man to the core. Raised in Perrysburg, Ohio, the son of a glassworker, he grew up wanting to do one thing: Play baseball.

He was good, very good, so the Tigers signed him up to play catcher in their minor league system. But just to get to the majors, you need to be great – and after seven years battling to get to the big leagues, Leyland realized he wasn’t great. Not as a player, at least.  

So he decided to become a manager, and worked his way up from Detroit’s lowest minor league team to its highest.That climb took him from Bristol, Virginia, to Clinton, Iowa, to Montgomery, Alabama, then Lakeland, Florida, and finally Evansville, Indiana – Detroit’s top farm club.  

He polished promising young prospects like Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammel into bona fide major leaguers.  

They all made it to Detroit, but they left their coach behind. When the Tigers should have hired the man who built that team, they gave the job instead to Sparky Anderson. Okay, so Anderson had already won two World Series with the vaunted Cincinnati Reds; but even as a kid I thought they got the wrong guy.  

Leyland didn’t whine about it. He kept working, until he got to be a big league manager six years later for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They won three straight division titles before the owners conducted a “fire sale,” selling off the all-stars Leyland had helped develop. Leyland could never understand it when somebody didn’t care as much about the game as he did.  

In 1997, he took over the Florida Marlins, owned by Blockbuster Video tycoon Wayne Huizenga, and promptly led them to their first World Series title. But the next year, Huizenga held his own fire sale, dismantling a title team. Leyland took a rare shot, telling the press he thought his job was to win championships, but that’s apparently not what his boss wanted.  

In 2006, 27 years after the Tigers’ passed him up for their top post, they named Leyland Detroit’s manager. He took the long-dormant franchise to its first American League pennant in 22 years. Under Leyland, the Tigers won four division titles and two pennants. Not bad.

But Leyland has plenty of critics. Since the computerized approach to managing – made famous in the book and movie, “Moneyball” – took over the game a decade ago, fans expect managers to make decisions by the book, not by their guts. When Leyland makes all-star hitters bunt with men in scoring position, or pulls great starting pitchers for weak relievers, the fans howl, and not without reason.

But I can’t help but notice Leyland’s teams always won. Everywhere. In the minors, in the majors, in the National League, and in the American League -- at every level, in eight different states, and five decades.  

Perhaps coaching is about more than just computing. A major league baseball team spends almost every day together for eight months a year. They see each other more than they see their wives and kids.    

Players aren’t robots, either. To get almost all his players to play their best when they’re playing for him, Leyland did something computers can’t, something we don’t see during games. He must be a hell of a guy, and a great leader, too. He cares about the game – sometimes more than the millionaires who play it -- and he cares about them, too.  

My dad, a former Army captain, told me he likes Leyland because he stands by his troops, and never chews them out in public.  

Yes, that’s old school – but that was Leyland. And it worked.