Jim Leyland stepped into the Tigers manager’s office two years ago when a team and a sport were in need of a makeover in Detroit. In one important way, his arrival was well-timed. It coincided with the evolution of a suddenly competitive team that had been years in development.
But make no mistake. Leyland’s influence has been everywhere as he heads into his third season as Tigers manager.
His intensity, as well as his dedication to details and to preparedness, helped turn a team accustomed to losing into a World Series participant in 2006.
The Tigers followed up with another winning season in 2007 and enter 2008 with new status and clout. Off-season trades for Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, Edgar Renteria, and Jacque Jones have made the Tigers among the favorites to play in another World Series.
Leyland, 63, grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, and played in the Tigers farm system as a catcher before taking a minor-league managerial job in 1971.
He has been managing or coaching ever since, crafting a reputation for tough, energized, efficient baseball that has put him on the cusp of winning a second World Series, in yet another league, following his 1997 triumph with the Florida Marlins.
Leyland sat down with Hour Detroit for a brief visit during this year’s spring camp in Lakeland, Fla..
What do you enjoy most about managing?
I like the competition. When you’re not a very good player, when you couldn’t make it as a player, and now you’re up there in a little bit of control making decisions involving the best players in the world, you enjoy that. I like the competition.
And, naturally, you like the camaraderie of baseball.
I’ve been in it 40-some years, so obviously I like that. It’s been my whole life, my whole adult life, and my childhood, really. I love the game. It never ceases to amaze me. For instance, I saw something today I haven’t seen in 40-some years. I saw Brandon Inge make a play on a ball with a bat at his feet [a splintered portion that had flown through the infield]. He jumped over that bat, and caught the baseball. Never have I seen that in all my years of baseball.
Name one other manager who does something you admire.
There are several of those guys. I can name four guys who I probably have the utmost respect for: Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson [both retired], Tony La Russa, and Bobby Cox. I just think all of them have a great passion for the game, all of them love competition, all of them were, and are, constantly on top of everything. They don’t miss any tricks. If you were going to model yourself after one manager, obviously those would be four good guys to imitate. There’ve been a lot of great managers, and I don’t want to slight anybody. But those are four that come to mind.
You were talking last week about football, which is a sport you love. You know your share of NFL coaches. Could you ever have seen yourself as a football coach had baseball not won out?
No, I don’t think I ever would have been. I doubt that I would have been coaching anything other than baseball.
Your wife [Katie] and kids [son Patrick 16, daughter Kelly 14], live in Pittsburgh. You’re in Detroit for half the year. And yet you have been able to make the commute work. How?
Well, that starts with the wife. I mean, if she doesn’t cooperate, you’re miserable, because you just can’t make it work. Obviously, I’ve been blessed with a Hall of Famer there. She makes all of that happen. It’s not to say you don’t have your moments when she’s not a very happy camper. But she understands. She knows this is what I do. She knows this is what I love. And she lets me do it.
You’ve been married almost 21 years. What’s her best quality?
I think she has a good feel for people. She’s one of 11 — 10 brothers and sisters. She’s very energetic with a good feel for people. She really got cheated, because she has her master’s in sports administration. So me doing what I do kind of hurt her. She made the ultimate sacrifice.
Say the two of you are going out to dinner. What are you ordering?
She’s going to order scallops or some kind of pasta. And I’m going to order steak and potatoes.
Let’s say it’s a day away from baseball. You can do whatever you want. What’s the schedule?
I’ll play golf. Tomorrow, my son and I will play golf together at Lone Palm [Golf Club, Lakeland, Fla.]. That’s a wonderful day. I wish my wife and daughter would be here, but they’re not arriving till [a day later]. If they’re here, it will be a kicked-back day, go to dinner, go to the mall. I’ve been through all the other stuff you do when the kids are growing up. But our kids are beyond those things now.