‘Thrilled’ to be part of their past, Jim Leyland says Tigers ‘close to making a splash’

Leyland now works as a Tigers special assistant, a kind of consulting position…

'Thrilled' to be part of their past, Jim Leyland says Tigers 'close to making a splash' 1
'Thrilled' to be part of their past, Jim Leyland says Tigers 'close to making a splash' 2

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — With a chilled breeze working to out-duel a bright sun and pure-blue sky, this was one of those Florida mornings in March Jim Leyland had known so many years in Lakeland since he first arrived for Tigers spring camp in 1964.

He was dressed fittingly: sunglasses riding on the bill of a blue-and-white Tigers cap. A gray pullover kept the breeze at bay. Leyland was relaxing at a canopied table inside a dining tent reserved for Tigers-cleared personnel as a big-league baseball team works to keep COVID from ruining a second consecutive spring camp.

“This whole thing is just a mess for everybody,” said Leyland, who was talking about coronavirus eight years after he finished an eight-year stint as Tigers manager, and only a few weeks after he got his second dose of COVID vaccine.

He turned 76 three months ago. Cosmetically, not much has changed from a time when fans knew him as that bass-voiced skipper they alternatingly found to be reassuring, amusing, or, depending how that night’s game had gone, maybe infuriating.

“I feel great,” he said. “I stay active. Get a lot of exercise. Watch my weight.

“It’s like I tell people: ‘I’m playing in the fourth quarter. I just hope it’s not the two-minute warning yet.”   

Leyland now works as a Tigers special assistant, a kind of consulting position he has filled since he retired after the 2013 season. He had driven to Lakeland that morning from Longboat Key, a lovely Gulf Coast getaway adjoining Sarasota. He and his wife, Katie, bought a place there in November, not far from where his longtime sidekick and coach, Gene Lamont, has long had a home.

“I don’t want to fight the ice and snow anymore,” said Leyland, whose warm-weather home is still in Pittsburgh, where he and Katie will head sometime in April.

The drive from Sarasota that morning had been a matter of convenience. The Tigers had played the Orioles the night before at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. Leyland had taken in the ballgame, as he does each day of camp wherever the Tigers play, and parlayed it into two nights at home.

It’s a good gig. Just ask the ex-skipper.

“I enjoy looking at these players,” he said. “I like being able to tell Al (Avila, Tigers general manager) what I see, what I think.

“I kind of serve as a sounding board for Al if he wants to run something past me.”

Talk of the town

That happens. A lot. Leyland managed four big-league teams spanning 22 years, and 3,497 games total, with his Tigers tenure the most pleasing and, in some respects, the most wounding of all his decades in a dugout.

It was simply that there was no completion. No world championship he and an entire organization, it seemed, wanted most of all for late owner Mike Ilitch. The Tigers made it to the World Series twice during Leyland’s years (2006 and 2012). They had a four-year playoff run that was loaded with drama and triumphs and a rather improbable string of October knockouts of the A’s and (drum roll) the Yankees.

They drew an astonishing 3 million fans four times from 2007-13, all Leyland years.

But a World Series parade that, perhaps most cruelly, vanished when the Tigers were crushed by an eighth-inning bullpen disintegration and David Ortiz’s grand slam in Game 2 of the 2013 American League Championship Series, canceled a last, final sip of sweetness Ilitch, Leyland, and Tigers followers wanted with their very souls.

“We beat the Yankees three times,” he said, talking about what, even years later, was a fairly astounding postseason feat, in 2006, 2012, and 2013. “But I understand those who say, ‘But you didn’t win (a World Series).’”

He knows what happened in 2013 as he, secretly, prepared to say goodbye to his managerial life. He understands that eighth inning at Fenway Park might have been the most disastrous single inning in 120 years of Tigers history.

He knows also what happened in 2006, his first season running the Tigers, the year Detroit blindsided all of baseball with a blitz that put the Tigers in the World Series for the first time in 22 years, only to lose to the Cardinals in five games. And then it happened again, in 2012, when the Tigers made it to the finals and were throttled by the Giants in a sweep.

“We just didn’t hit,” Leyland said, making clear in four simple words how the Tigers were twice vanquished and how they twice left Ilitch a step from a championship he had long wanted more than any of his four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings.

But for a manager, and perhaps for most Tigers fans who span two Michigan peninsulas and far beyond, what Leyland most recalls, most savors from his years as Tigers skipper, were those seasons when the Tigers specialized in celebrity talent and grand-stage theater. Playoff baseball was a near-constant.

“I was thrilled to be a part of it,” he said. “Let me put it this way: I was more fortunate than they (fans) were.

“I got there at the right time,” he said, meaning that the Tigers, who had not had a winning record in 12 years, were just about to meld with Pudge Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, and a young pitcher named Justin Verlander.

Leyland had been on the sidelines for six years when then-Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski was shopping for a new skipper at the end of the 2005 season. The two men had dinner at The Capital Grille in Troy. Dombrowski had won a World Series with Leyland at Miami in 1997. All he needed to know was whether a manager who was 61, six years removed from dugouts and clubhouses, had rediscovered some old fire.

He had. Twenty minutes into dinner Dombrowski concluded a baseball sage who had been raised 75 miles south of Detroit, who had spent years in the Tigers bushes as a catcher, and who for years afterward managed Tigers farm kids, all before branding himself as one of the best skippers in big-league ball, was back, hungry to bring precisely what a disjointed Tigers team and baseball-crazy town needed.

“I was thrilled to be a part of it,” said Leyland, who, ironically, had been understudying for the Detroit job when he was a Tigers farm skipper, making it all the way to Triple A, and who might have been in line for Detroit had the Tigers not signed Sparky Anderson to manage in 1979.

“Let me put it this way,” Leyland said of his eight-year ride at Comerica Park. “I was more fortunate than the fans were. I got there at the right time. I loved it. And I never saw anything like it.

“You’d be at a restaurant and everybody had something on, Tigers-related: a wristband, or a hat, or a parka, whatever. It was just so much fun to see the park packed night after night after night.”

He and Comerica’s customers had a relationship unlike any in Tigers managerial history. Most times it was cordial, even reverential. At other times it was a series of spats, largely because, unlike the pre-cable TV days when Anderson was manager, every Tigers game, and every press conference, put the skipper in people’s living rooms — a courtroom where fans could pronounce verdicts: guilty or innocent.

That guy with the smoky voice digging into a plate of food on his desk, his pack of Marlboros in view as cameras took in on bad nights Leyland’s post-loss post mortem, was a sweet target for second-guessing that more than any sport baseball practically demands.

He got blistered, ceaselessly, with talk-radio the loudest, steadiest outlet for fans who were all too sure the previous night’s loss, rather than the previous night’s triumph, was all on the skipper.

Leyland would be sitting at a bar with Lamont late on an evening in Royal Oak, where Leyland had a condo. Or, he might be parked at a slot machine downtown, kicking back with a drink and with a cigarette a couple hours after the game’s last pitch.

He was going to be approached. He knew it. And half-welcomed it.

Most occasions, fans wanted nothing more than to shake hands and say a nervous hello, maybe leading to a quick camera-phone pic or selfie. Leyland always obliged. Some of the time they wanted to get into his wheelhouse, demanding to know why his strategy rather than their chess-move was at work with his bullpen choice in the seventh.

Leyland enjoyed it. Generally speaking.

“I’ve believed all along, Detroit and St. Louis are the two best towns in baseball for knowledgeable fans, and for the most part, people always asked legitimate questions,” Leyland said. “They thought about things.”

He would meet them halfway. Fans were entitled to questions. And to opinions. But a big-league skipper, whose professional life had been consumed by a game and its endless strata of complexities and realities, wasn’t much for allowing a fan’s armchair mastery to override 40 years of dugout perches and personal skill at handling clubhouse machinations.

“I’d always say, I’m going to explain why I did it, but after that I’m not gonna argue about it,” Leyland said. “Most of the people were really good about it.”

In fact, he watched out for them. More than fans knew.

“I utilized the media, you might say, to tell ’em as much as I could,” Leyland said. “It was good tonic for the organization.

“I always wanted fans to be informed. If I knew ahead of time that I was going to sit {Miguel) Cabrera or Magglio (Ordonez) on Sunday, I’d say it to Dan Dickerson (Tigers pre-game radio show) a day or two in advance. So, if people had a ticket, they could turn in the ticket and get seats for another day.

“You do think about those things.”

He and Dombrowski had worked together in Miami to win a World Series. They collaborated in Detroit to do all but win another title in a different league. Their relationship was, like most GM-manager unions, steadily cohesive, but always subject to the occasional tiff or blow-up that happens in most human settings, including marriages.

They complemented one another. Each man needed the other’s distinct skills.

“Dave never asked anybody to work harder than he did,” Leyland said of Dombrowski, who now is running the Phillies. “He was 24 hours-a-day looking at minor-league boxscores, at major-league boxscores. He didn’t miss a trick.

“And he could run a meeting as well as anyone I’ve ever been around.”

Trader Dave was the baseball world’s unofficial title for Dombrowski, whose wheedling helped the Tigers forge those four postseason runs. Leyland knew he could always count on his boss to swing a deal — at midseason for Anibal Sanchez or Doug Fister, in December for Miguel Cabrera or Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer. Always, always, there was a swap bubbling.

“He was probably the best I’ve ever seen at keeping a secret when he had a deal going,” Leyland says of his old boss. “And that was fine with me.

“I always said, ‘Unless I need to know, don’t tell me. Then, if it leaks out, you can’t blame me.’

“He’d tell me what was going on — late. But he was the best I’ve ever seen at keeping a secret.”

They weren’t close, personally, which is how it tends to go with GMs and managers. One of the all-time frostiest relationships existed, maybe surprisingly, during the years when Anderson and Tigers GM Bill Lajoie worked so deftly to deliver a 1984 championship and a team that certainly should have won beyond ’84. Neither man had much patience for the other. But they knew, together, they had skill sets that most benefited an extraordinary ballclub and era during the 1980s.

The closer friendship during Dombrowski’s years as boss was enjoyed by Leyland and the man who now is GM and who then was Dombrowski’s assistant: Avila.

Sounding board

Although Leyland was brought aboard as a special assistant while Dombrowski was still here, it’s Avila who counts on an old manager’s counsel today, happily so.

“Oh, you know how he is — he’ll give you his opinion whether you want it or not,” Avila said, laughing. “But for me to have him here is a no-brainer.

“First of all, we enjoy each other’s conversation. He’s very witty, very funny, but also very smart — and yes, he’ll give you his opinion, as long as it’s welcomed. If it’s not welcomed, he’s not going to walk into a meeting or to a manager’s office and tell ‘em what to do. But, if invited, that’s what he’s good at.”

Leyland sees that as his role and as his boundary, absolutely.

“They’ve included me, Al wants me to feel included,” Leyland said, “but not in any over-the-top way.”

He helps — if asked — to advise Tigers farm managers. He scouts big-league players during games at Cleveland or Pittsburgh or wherever. He takes a peek at the Tigers’ minor-leaguers (or, last year, the taxi squad) at Toledo, or Erie. He joins the front office in December for baseball’s Winter Meetings.

“He’d work a lot with (Mike) Rabelo on managing,” Avila said, mentioning a one-time Double-A Erie Tigers manager who now coaches for the Pirates. “He was a good mentor for Rabelo, as well as for Donny Kelly (former Tigers player and scout, now also coaching for the Pirates). He’ll talk with players, with staffers, with anyone. And he’ll give you those opinions that are really important.”

Avila likes to say his new manager, AJ Hinch, “has a psychology degree from Stanford, but you could say Leyland has a psychology degree without having gone to college.” It’s an example of how Leyland reads minds and psyches and behavior, something he did instantly in 2006, when a thunderous April postgame dressing-down of his players turned around a team’s collective mind, and its season, and brought on a World Series.

As for Hinch, an old skipper is all aboard with the Tigers’ new man.

“AJ has been great,” Leyland said. “He includes me, invites me to all the meetings. If he asks me my opinion, I give it. If not, I don’t.

“But AJ’s a real bright guy, very knowledgeable. With him, I just think it’s a combination of things. First of all, he’s a people person. He’s also very detailed. And at the end of the day, it’s all about communication. And his communication skills are top-notch.

“This guy has a whole bunch of pluses. He doesn’t miss anything.”

What Leyland knows, of course, is that the reason Hinch has his old job in Detroit is because another of Leyland’s eternal buddies, Tony La Russa, took the White Sox manager’s chair Hinch otherwise was set to be offered, and to accept.

Leyland and La Russa still talk. Nearly every day.

“I knew it was gonna happen,” Leyland said, speaking of La Russa’s choice, at 76, to manage a decade after he last worked a dugout. “I think it’s great.

“He’s excited,” Leyland said, grinning at La Russa’s timing in taking over a White Sox team that might be the most talented young club in baseball.

“He didn’t pick the ’62 Mets.”

Their friendship, as was the case when they managed against each other, never seeps into loyalties owed to their own teams and jobs.

‘I like what I’m seeing’

These are the Tigers, after all. They’re Leyland’s heritage. They’re his passion. And he knows that baseball life in Detroit is probably brightening, as much as it can in 2021 with a long remodeling job still far from wrapped.

“We’re not the homecoming king yet, but I like what I’m seeing,” Leyland said, mentioning new catcher Wilson Ramos and his “legitimate power,” saluting Jonathan Schoop’s return at second base, and young shortstop Willi Castro, who in Leyland’s parlance “has a loud bat.”

Leyland reached into a red-and-white pack of Marlboros (“not a very good habit,” he acknowledged), lit a fresh smoke, and carried on about the Tigers and what was ahead.

“There’s a plan in place, and I think we’re nudging close,” he said. “And while I don’t want to speak for Chris Ilitch (acting Tigers owner), or for Al, I think we’re probably close to making a splash.”

He was referring to free agency. And, perhaps, to signing the kind of box-office star the Tigers made ahead of, and during, Leyland’s years when Rodriguez, or Ordonez, or Victor Martinez, or Prince Fielder were brought aboard to help with those playoff runs.

In fact, the Tigers’ soft timetable, at least privately, for getting back seriously into free-agent shopping has been for a return ahead of the 2022 season. The target was designed to coincide with a core crop of new pitchers and hitters arriving fresh from the farm and was rough chronology presented to Hinch before he took the Tigers job in October.

“There’s a lot of loyalty to that fan base in Detroit,” Leyland said, knowing fans who quibbled with him about his late-innings bullpen decisions might rip him on that topic, as well.

He doesn’t mind. He knows baseball. Knows there are 30 big-league teams all trying to win, which was what made the old heyday so special. He knows — knows — there is serious talent gestating on the farm and even on Hinch’s 2021 roster and that better times at Comerica Park probably are ahead.

And he’ll do what he can to help there, all while enjoying, maybe as much as any man anywhere, retired life.

For a baseball devotee still making it to spring games, still scouting and counseling during the season, still watching two games a day when he’s not at a ballpark, this has been one graced life.

And while, in Leyland’s view, it might be for him the fourth quarter, it looks as if that scoreboard clock is showing plenty of time.

He’ll light another cigarette. He’ll make the most of it.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com


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