The Times West Virginian

Sports

October 25, 2013

Tigers’ skipper Leyland steps down after storied career

MORGANTOWN — It was late last Saturday night. The season had ended for the Detroit Tigers, which was hard enough for their players to take, let alone learning from their manager, Jim Leyland, that an era had ended too and that he was retiring.

He thanked them for respecting him for the eight years he’d run the team, returning it to respectability and to a World Series, and asked them to respect one last request, to keep his retirement quiet until he could announce it to the world on Monday.

The way Leyland recalled the scene, he would reveal at his press conference, was that as he walked back to his office “it was like a bombshell. It was dead silence. So I came back and told them, ‘Fellas, this is Jim Leyland retiring, this is not Babe Ruth. Get a beer. Have a sandwich. Go enjoy yourself.’”

And with that, Leyland walked away from managing exactly as he started it, modestly, understated, still as much the kid who had come out of Perrysburg, Ohio, in love with a dream that was baseball as he had ever been.

See, I remember when he came out of nowhere to become a big-league manager in Pittsburgh, taking over a franchise that was financially and artistically broke, a team that had lost 104 games the season before.

It was not unlike when he took over the Detroit franchise, by that time having built the Pirates into a winning team, having won a World Series in Miami before moving to Colorado for a managerial term that didn’t last much longer than a Kardashian marriage.

The Detroit team he took over had lost an astonishing 114 games just three years earlier and had lost a combined 300 games in the previous three seasons.

He was unknown when he came to Pittsburgh, a coach on Tony LaRussa’s Chicago White Sox staff, a baseball lifer who at a time was known as a solid baseball man but one who would wind up with a lampshade on his head singing at late-night parties.

He could work for a major league team, the word was, but he couldn’t represent one until finally someone got across to him that he had to straighten out his act the way he straightened out minor league players and sent them off to the big leagues.

By that time he had become a Class AAA manager for Detroit, but Sparky Anderson was the big league manager and he wanted no part of Leyland, not even on his coaching staff. In fact, one winter he hired an old friend, Billy Consolo, as a coach, a former Red Sox infielder who had become a barber.

Leyland told the story of how one of his brothers had called and mocked him by saying, “They hired a barber instead of you,” so it was really no surprise he thought it was just another joke from his brother the day he received a phone call from someone saying, “Jim, this is Syd Thrift with the Pirates.”

Not to be duped this time, Leyland shot back, “Yeah, and I’m John McGraw,” and hung up.

It wasn’t until Thrift, the Pirates’ general manager at the time, called back that Leyland realized he had almost hung up on his future.

When he took over the Pirates and began to turn things around, I was working at the late, great Pittsburgh Press as the Pirates’ beat writer, and there was a story I wrote that told you as much about Jim Leyland then as anything you will read today for, in truth, he really has not changed.

“In another city, another setting, maybe it would be different,” the story began. “Maybe the locals would be sitting in their favorite pub toasting the manager for helping turn a losing team into a winning one, but it hasn’t worked that way here.

“Pirates’ manager Jim Leyland has been little more than a backdrop to the transformation that has taken place; a role player in a far bigger production.

“Leyland’s only headlines come from post-game tirades or when a second-guesser decides to jump on a move that didn’t work.”

Front and center was the bombastic general manager Syd Thrift, who gladly took credit for all that happened right. In another city, there might have been a Jim Leyland Show on the radio, but in Pittsburgh there was, instead, a Syd Thrift Show.

But if Thrift shaped the restructuring of the Pirates, Leyland pulled the success out of them as only he could.

“He’s relentless,” his coach and confidant Rich Donnelly said at the time. “He’s always pushing toward perfection. In spring training he’d sit there all night, smoking 100 cigarettes, writing out lineups. There’s no off days for him. Once in a while we try to drag him away to play golf or go to the dog track just to give him a break.”

That was not an exaggeration, not the 100 cigarettes or the fact that he would sit in the clubhouse all night writing out lineups.

Take the spring Thrift told him there was a chance the Tony Pena trade might be made with the St. Louis Cardinals. He spent one entire night sitting there penciling lineups that included Andy Van Slyke and Mike LaValliere, trying to see what might fit best. The coaches had to rescue him from himself.

“They have a great sense of when I’m on, when I need some help,” Leyland said then.

This was often, for he always has been consumed by his occupation. In his early days, when he became a minor league manager following a career as a minor league catcher that was distinguishable only through how much he failed to accomplish, he made the ball park his home.

Literally, he would live out of the clubhouse, a practice that he never really did shake. In fact, when he was managing in Colorado, his family stayed in Pittsburgh, so rather than head to an empty house, he would sleep in a small office at Coors Field, perhaps an early warning sign that this was not a permanent position.

What Leyland had which worked with his players, with his coaches, with the media and the fans, was this belief that he was simply an ordinary man put into extraordinary circumstances.

When was he the best?

Four hours before a game we’d sit there, Leyland, his writers, a coach or two, him in his underwear, his feet up on the desk, smoking one Marlboro after another, drinking one coffee after another that was brought to him by the veteran clubhouse man John Hallahan.

He’d tell stories ranging from Perrysburg to the big leagues, stories of picking up Kirk Gibson at the airport the day his minor league career began, stories of his off-season employment when he could not live on his minor league salary, working at selling 29-cent rose bushes at a place called Bargain City, skidding a mail truck off an icy road into a ditch, working as a hod carrier and sinking like quicksand at a muddy construction site.

These were priceless moments that no longer exist in major league baseball, for a wall has been built between those who are employed in the game and the media, cut back into by the large gap that existed in salaries, by the invasion of online sites that would report anything they saw or heard – or thought they saw or heard.

It became all business, without any real personal relationships that let you know that these athletes and managers and coaches were people just like themselves, only driving fancier cars and living in bigger houses.

Leyland, by being one of the people, knew how to deal with people and, as he would say in that long-ago article:

“This is still a people business. I have always worked with the idea that you have to use common sense. It has to be a team. You make the veterans do what everyone else does. When you get someone you can’t communicate with, either the manager gets fired or the player has to move on.”

The biggest challenge, perhaps, came when the Pirates became really good and had a clubhouse that was difficult to deal with, filled with such personalities as Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Andy Van Slyke.

To this day, with all Leyland has done, he may be most famous for a video clip of 1991 spring training confrontation with Bonds, then a budding superstar.

It was a spring training morning, and Bonds had hired a freelance photographer of his own to shoot pictures. There came a time when the Pirates public relations man Jim Lachima tried to remove the photographer from the field, only to be greeted by a volley of foul language from Bonds.

Bill Virdon, a no-nonsense one-time manager and coach with Leyland, intervened, but when Leyland heard the shouting he stepped in and went nose-to-nose in a one-sided bleep-fest that made all the network newscasts.

If it looked so confrontational that it would ruin the relationship between manager and player, it did just the opposite, for Bonds came to respect Leyland for it, and the rest of the team bought into whatever it was Leyland was selling that made them N.L. Eastern Division champions for three straight years.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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