(Editor’s Note: Lynn Henning has observed Jim Leyland off and on for more than 30 years — from when he was managing in the Tigers’ minor-league system all the way through 2013 spring training. As the Tigers prepare to defend their second American League championship under Leyland’s watch, Henning takes a closer look at the manager everyone thinks they know.)
Describing Jim Leyland in 30 words or less is like packing for a two-week European vacation: focus on the essentials; don’t regret what you’re leaving behind: Sensitive. Insightful. Multi-layered. Difficult, if not impossible, to catch off-guard. An amazing knack for balancing ego with selflessness. A psyche and soul forged by his place within a large family.
Leyland is a man of surprising complexity. At 68, he’s both the authoritarian figure and the sentimental countenance of his ballclub, now in his eighth year as manager of Detroit’s 112-year-old baseball team.
Those who cover the Tigers dissect Leyland several hundred times a season during his pregame and postgame media sessions. He’s also on display for seven weeks every year at spring camp in Lakeland, Fla. He enjoys a few hours of civilian life at his in-season home in Royal Oak and at the team hotel on road trips. He plays a strategic as well as diplomatic role at the winter meetings every December, with his ambassadorial duties carrying over to January’s publicity caravan.
And, of course, if things go according to plan for Leyland and the Tigers in 2013, he’ll find himself back in the playoffs come October, reunited with a national baseball audience that’s come to appreciate his style, his droll wit, and, yes, his baseball acumen.
A Man of Candor
The dry stuff helps. Major league baseball seasons are long and tense. Humor freshens the air, as Leyland did when he was asked by a New York writer during last October’s American League Championship Series if the Tigers’ 2012 season and their September rally had been particularly stressful.
“Yeah, I think so,” Leyland said that day deep within Yankee Stadium’s basement concourse. “But it’s supposed to be. I mean, that’s just the way this works. I get 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 who looks like Paul Newman after 162 games, [and] I’ll show you a guy that didn’t do a very good job.’ ”
His jokes are often self-deprecating and always wry. And yet they’re adornments. Leyland has his job because he’s extraordinarily good at running a baseball team. In that context, his national reputation probably exceeds the local market’s affinity for a man who grew up south of Toledo in the Maumee River shoreline town of Perrysburg, Ohio.
Inside the Numbers
Detroiters sometimes see a gray-haired guy with a mustache, arms folded in the dugout, presiding for better or for worse over the town’s baseball team. The rest of the country sees a manager who’s won a World Series with the Florida Marlins and who’s twice taken the Tigers to the World Series.
National scribes look at the 1,676 games his teams have won against the 1,659 they’ve lost in his 21 seasons as a big-league manager. And what they conclude, apart from local debates about his winning percentage (.503), is a man who — had he not taken a six-year sabbatical from 1999-2005 — would be just a couple of seasons from cracking the top-five list of baseball’s all-time most victorious managers.
That status would almost certainly qualify Leyland for the Hall of Fame. He might be destined for Cooperstown, anyway, especially if this year’s Tigers team (an early Las Vegas favorite to return to the World Series) can finally cash in and bring Detroit its first baseball championship since 1984.
But those are largely numbers and niches crafted from longevity and circumstance. Leyland’s calling card is his skill for policing and preparing 25 ballplayers from February through October. And for being a man to whom front-office bosses, abundantly aware of how many things can go wrong within a day and within a game, happily entrust their teams.
How it all came to this is a fairly simple story. That is, if you consider life a simple narrative
Beyond the Bright Lights
Leyland’s personal intricacies are obvious to all who’ve seen his postgame TV interviews. The cigarette-smoking Marlboro Man, he of the virile voice and occasional brusqueness, sometimes seems more interested in his late-night supper of salmon and rice than in answering reporters’ questions. These scenes don’t always endear him to his audience, especially if he’s just made a lineup move or a pitching change that rankled the legion of armchair managers.
Leyland, though, is generally not that guy. He’s typically cordial, conversational, and patient. A great percentage of his postgame TV interviews, even after a tough loss, are handled with a mix of satisfaction, candor, or irked acceptance, depending on the score. He understands that everyone has responsibilities, including the brave interrogators of Fox Sports Detroit (John Keating, Ryan Field, Trevor Thompson, Shannon Hogan) who stand before him, microphone in hand.
Candidly, Leyland hates these interviews. They’re quasi-live (taped, but no do-overs), and patience can be tried during a debriefing in which there are often few “good” questions at hand. Minutes later, after the cameras are off, Leyland engages in far more conversational and comfortable postgame banter with the beat writers, who ask similar questions but in a totally different environment. Eating fish and pondering ninth-inning strategies are more casually carried out once the bright lights — and the pressure to not swear on TV — are gone.
The Sensitive Guy
Leyland’s prevailing persona is one of reserved warmth, accompanied by a bleeding heart prone to hemorrhaging. It’s September and the Tigers have just won their second straight American League Central Division title. Leyland, his voice cracking, all but blubbers as he talks about fans “who get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, just trying to make it, and still come out to support this baseball team.”
He can barely avoid an on-camera breakdown. What is it with a guy who, for sheer wet-eyed spontaneity, should be paired with teary House Speaker John Boehner in a cry-off?
He’s had similar teary-eyed moments after Justin Verlander’s no-hitters and again this past January, when he stood inside Mayor Dave Bing’s Manoogian Mansion dining room and thanked Bing and Detroit’s faithful for their support, his voice quivering as he acknowledged the “fans who can’t afford to go to a game but who watch our games on television.”
The Lean Years
Return for a moment to Perrysburg. To that quintessentially blue-collar home overseen by a father, James A., who worked at Corning Glass, and by an amazing mother, Veronica, and, most tellingly, to that same house where seven kids bunked.
You grow up tough in such circumstances. You form a certain craggy independence. You have no choice. You’re one of seven kids and nine people under the same roof. Leyland, if you wait enough years, will tell you about having to borrow gas money from his brothers for his first drive to Lakeland, Fla., for minor-league camp.
He was a catcher and career bush-leaguer in the Tigers’ farm system and loves to put himself down for his paltry hitting skills, which ultimately turned him to managing. But don’t be fooled. His years as an apprentice catcher were a master’s curriculum in the nuances of baseball. They were also tough and impoverished. It’s helped him relate to young ballplayers’ dreams — and to the harsh realities that so often crush those dreams.
He’ll tell you about the Leyland brothers having to wear each other’s shoes when there wasn’t always a clothing budget big enough to keep a band of growing boys shod in their Sunday best. Not fun, having too little money. But instructive in what counts if you’re a person of Leyland’s hearth-and-home values.
Stability … for now, at least
Now, of course, Leyland makes $4 million a season and doesn’t mind the freedom. He might have been making a lot less from the Tigers in 2013 — as in zero — had the team not bailed him out last September. The Tigers were in trouble with three weeks to go, trailing the first-place Chicago White Sox by three games with just 16 left to play. ESPN calculated the Tigers’ chances of reaching the playoffs at 18 percent.
Leyland was on the verge of being fired. And he knew it. His boss, Dave Dombrowski, had said nothing on his behalf as Leyland’s contract entered its final weeks. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, deferring as he always does to his general manager, was silent.
On Sept. 17, the Tigers were a wobbly 77-69. They had the fifth-largest payroll in all of baseball and one of the game’s more mediocre records relative to star power. Nevermind that the Tigers, on most days, were fielding a lineup loaded with pop-guns galore from the No. 5 through No. 9 spots. The Tigers still had Miguel Cabrera. And Prince Fielder. And Justin Verlander. And loads of pitching behind Verlander. That was enough for critics to scream that the skipper had to go.
Leyland was about to pay the price for the suddenly silent bats of Delmon Young, Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Brennan Boesch, and Ryan Raburn. The bottom half of his lineup simply wasn’t producing runs. Factor in a defense that made baseball purists cringe, and the Tigers’ record was easily explained, absolving Leyland from managerial liability.
But tell that to fans, at least the dyspeptic variety, who were convinced Leyland was the problem. His lineups were askew. His pitching changes were ill-timed. His decisions in a particular game to bunt, or not to bunt, were inept.
Baseball, unlike any other sport, invites civilians into the game, to advance their own strategies as they sit on the sofa, thinking back to the day in a particular game — Little League, high school, whenever — when they laid down a bunt. Or stole a base. Or did something they can’t believe big-leaguers and their manager have now failed to do.
More lethal for a team’s skipper are those who might have coached their kid’s team with utter baseball genius. Just ask them: They taught an adolescent to choke up on the bat. They bunted in a one-run victory. They put their best hitters at the top of the order. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.
Baseball’s democratic ways, where fans can posture as paragons of knowledge and strategy, can be hell on a manager. And last year was becoming just that for Leyland as the season, and his job, appeared to slowly be slipping away.
There was little doubt that Dombrowski was of the same mind. And he would have had his case for dismissal. He was likely starting to think that, after seven seasons, Leyland’s time was up. Managers get fired when they don’t win, or, in Leyland’s case, when they don’t win sufficiently. Life is particularly risky when the GM and the owner are above you and aren’t about to find great fault in what they’ve constructed.
The Odd Couple
Dombrowski and Leyland have an interesting relationship. It can be said that they effectively coexist. As different as Brooks Brothers and Kohl’s, these two men benefit from each other’s expertise — and together they’ve forged a compelling brand of baseball in Detroit. Three times in the past six years, the Tigers have reached baseball’s gold standard for home attendance: 3 million. Comerica Park hosts a good show.
Dombrowski, though, understands that managers are flexible appointments. Their basic skill sets are often interchangeable, with some personalities and styles helpful to particular teams at particular times. It’s why Dombrowski almost certainly would’ve replaced Leyland with Terry Francona, the former Red Sox and Phillies manager who was available and who wanted the Tigers job had his close friend, Leyland, been jettisoned, all before Francona accepted a consolation prize as Indians skipper.
The Tigers, though, ensured that Francona would become Cleveland property by way of an 11-5 finish that coincided with a White Sox meltdown. Leyland’s team won the division by three games, dispatched the Oakland A’s in a five-game divisional playoff series, then swept the Yankees in four straight in the American League Championship Series before disappearing against San Francisco in the World Series.
Life on the Hot Seat
How long he sticks as Tigers manager is a question with no discernible answer. Leyland’s health is astonishingly good for a man who smokes so much. He’s always said that he’ll be the first to know when it’s time to go — that his bosses won’t need to show him the door.
But the Tigers’ brass was set to pink-slip him last fall when Leyland professed to never having felt better, physically or professionally. And in the latter context, he could’ve easily built his case.
As a frustrating, fits-and-starts season evolved in Detroit, it wasn’t Leyland who his opponents saw as culpable. The culprit instead was a Tigers lineup loaded with too many soft bats. This issue, of course, only offered more ammunition for Leyland’s legion of vocal critics.
His detractors blamed last season’s hitting woes on his “cronies,” most notably their bête noire, hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.
But left unexplained was how McClendon and his supposed responsibility for Detroit’s lousy hitting could be divorced from any influence on Cabrera and his Triple Crown season, Fielder and his 30 home runs, or star center fielder Austin Jackson, whom McClendon had re-crafted the previous offseason.
But the anti-Leyland crowd wasn’t interested in rational retorts any more than they wanted to listen to his rival managers, who universally consider him among the best in the business.
“In overall knowledge of the game, communication, and leadership, he’s the total package,” said Bobby Cox, the Atlanta icon who managed the Braves for 25 seasons and who tangled regularly with Leyland’s teams. “You could look forever and not find one thing wrong with Jim as a manager.”
Leyland is viewed as elite because he runs a tight but harmonious ship that consistently avoids the pitfalls common to most managers. Big-league baseball teams are trouble waiting to happen, during and away from games. Clubhouse splits and player squabbles are common toxins in some towns. But not in Detroit, where a player’s public or private carping about Leyland is unheard of.
His rivals particularly respect how he handles his relief pitchers. And it was the bullpen last season where Leyland quietly, but fatally, out-managed his rookie rival in Chicago, Robin Ventura, who was overwhelmed by the tactical trap of pulling and replacing pitchers.
Dombrowski acknowledges all of this. He’s also aware that sometimes you simply need a change in voice, a different administration. And while he offers not the slightest bit of confirmation, it’s understood that he was ready to pull the trigger on Leyland and Co. ahead of the Tigers’ late-season renaissance.
The Silver-Haired Orator
And so Leyland is back — for at least another year. Back as manager and, arguably, as the face of the franchise. Back as one of Royal Oak’s happiest residents. And back to posing for pictures and exchanging pleasantries with fans who either appreciate the way he manages, or who, upon meeting him, seem to forget about the bunt he failed to order in the seventh inning two nights ago that nearly drove them mad.
Leyland loves his in-season neighborhood. He lives in Pittsburgh during the offseason with his wife, Katie, and make no mistake: Pennsylvania is home. But the bars and restaurants and late-night strolls around Royal Oak are, for a certifiable people person, a welcome break from baseball. At least when he’s not pulling the lever at a downtown casino, which he occasionally does for relaxation.
Leyland is rarely afforded any privacy in Detroit. But when he’s approached, whether at the bar or on the street, he doesn’t mind the interaction, not even when his deriders want to know, in polite terms, why he did such and such at a particular point in a game.
He’ll explain why he made a particular move, but he won’t debate the decision. It’s his way of being courteous to fans who might have forgotten that big-league managing is a profession, and that, like most professions, those who’ve spent their lives in it are aware of intricacies that people outside their sphere haven’t begun to contemplate.
Leyland won’t say that, of course. But the more you watch him manage a game, the more you begin to understand. And sometime next offseason, he’d love to explain to a fan why he called the hit-and-run that won the Tigers the World Series.