MORGANTOWN — What makes a Hall of Fame manager in baseball?
That was what Monday morning’s phone call to Jim Leyland was all about. No one’s playing right now, we don’t know if we’ll have any baseball this year for that matter, so why not check in with Leyland.
See, every so often you hear murmurings that Leyland some day should be elected to the Hall of Fame. Having spent nearly every day of his whole Pittsburgh career covering him and having stayed close through his journey to Detroit and Miami and Colorado, some things become evident and one of those is that Leyland is knocking on that door in Cooperstown.
But what does he think about it? What goes through his mind when the discussion comes up.
“I’ve always taken the attitude that’s up to somebody else,” Leyland said. “To be honest with you, I don’t think about it very much. It would be the highest honor, obviously. Some people say yes, some say no.
“People have different ideas about it. I don’t know how they end up voting on something like that.”
When I think of Jimmy Leyland, three managers come to mind who already are in the Hall of Fame, three men who were very similar in one respect, very different in another:
Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver and Walter Alston.
If each were a dog he would have been considered a mutt, not a pedigree, when he showed up as a major league manager.
Anderson, who managed the Big Red Machine to two World Series titles and Detroit to another, played one major league season and after he retired as a player his distinction was that he had the lowest single season batting average — .218 — of anyone to ever play 150 games in a season.
Alston, who took over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954 when they were the Boys of Summer and managed them into Los Angeles until 1976, had exactly one major league at bat as a player.
He struck out.
Weaver never played in a major league game yet managed the Baltimore Orioles for 17 years and won four pennants and a World Series.
Leyland was like them in the respect that he gained no glory as a player, played seven minor league seasons as a catcher with a career batting average of .222 with four home runs in 489 games.
All four men, of course, found their niche as managers but Leyland was different in one regard. He made do with worn out hand-me-downs while the others were born into royalty.
Alston, as noted, inherited the Dodgers in their glory years. Anderson inherited a team ready to be born as the Big Red Machine. Weaver’s first full season he had a team that won 109 games and its first three years the Orioles were 366-198, an obscene .649 winning percentage.
Yes, they didn’t screw up what they had, but they inherited teams filled with superstars and future Hall of Famers.
Leyland came into a Pittsburgh situation in 1986 where the team bordered on bankruptcy both financially and professionally, a team that had gone 57-104 the year before.
If the others started their managerial lives in the penthouse, Leyland’s started in a homeless shelter. But he was glad to be there and would, by 1991, have them ready to make a three-year run into the playoffs, stopped short of going to the World Series only because they ran into Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz on the mound each time.
The knock on Leyland is that he doesn’t have the winning percentage other Hall of Fame managers do, standing at just .506 for 22 seasons, but he got kicked around a whole lot early before he could develop a winning team.
Then, after lifting Pittsburgh off the trash heap, he was brought into Miami and won a World Series his first year only to have them break the team up under him to the point that the next year they played 38 rookies, which could only lead to a 54-108 post-World Championship season.
At this point, Leyland’s winning percentage is better than Bruce Bochy, who is being talked about these days as future Hall of Fame manager despite a .497 winning percentage.
And if you want to compare Leyland to Hall of Famers, consider this. He took three of the four franchises he led to the post-season, is one of only two managers to win three straight division titles with two franchises, won a pennant in each league and won a World Series, which is all Hall of Famers Weaver, Bobby Cox and Whitey Herzog have won. And Leyland’s 44 post-season victories are fourth in baseball history behind Joe Torre, Cox and Tony LaRussa.
The other managers, too, were blessed with Hall of Fame players — Alston with nine from the Dodgers, Anderson with six and Weaver with five.
Leyland managed just two, none with the Pirates, Ivan Rodriguiez for a couple years in Detroit and Larry Walker for a year in Colorado.
Ah, Colorado, they hold that against Leyland for he went in there and suffered through a 72-90, for which he takes full responsibility.
“Colorado was a bad decision for me,” he said. “They treated me great, it was just a bad decision for me. I just couldn’t manage in that ball park. I was a pitcher’s manager and I just couldn’t do it in that ball park.”
He was not fired. In fact, in 22 years he never was fired. But he was embarrassed in Colorado and walked away from a $4 million contract.
So how did he do it? How did this low level minor league catcher who seemed doomed from the start when he took over a dreadful situation in Pittsburgh rise to the level of being spoken about for the Hall of Fame?
What was his secret?
“I tell guys today there are certain managers like myself who have to gain the players’ respect,” he said. “If you were a great player or good player like Lou Piniella or Dusty Baker or Joe Torre you have credibility coming in.”
That’s easy to say, not always easy to do.
“I always took the philosophy I’m not going to tell everybody what I know, I’m going to show people what I know,” he said. “I never forced myself on the players. I got a bunch of hard working coaches with me and we grinded it out and stayed with it.
I was fortunate in Pittsburgh with [general manager] Syd Thrift, who got us some good players. and we turned it around.
“It’s a common sense thing. In my case, you’re not going to go in there being a backup Double-A catcher and tell major league players everything you know. You go in there, show them your work ethic and show them how you go about your business and let them make their decision.”
Jim Leyland’s baseball career started in 1964.
It was a different game then. It was a different world then.
In the world, the Civil Rights Act was passed. The Beatles visited America. The war in Southeast Asia was heating up. Lyndon B. Johnson won the Presidency he had inherited from John F. Kennedy in a landslide over Barry Goldwater. There was a thaw in the Cold War as Nikita Khrushchev was removed from power in Russia.
In sports, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the New York Yankees, 4 games to 3, with Bob Gibson, the World Series MVP. Cassius Clay stunned the world by knocking out Sonny Liston. Arnold Palmer won the Masters. Texas beat Navy in the Cotton Bowl to win the national NCAA championship.
Leyland hit .204 his first year of a career that would take him no higher than Class AA baseball before he turned to managing, where he would become a world champion with the Detroit Tigers, a National League champion with the Florida Marlins, a three-time division champion with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
His was a generation that lived baseball, breathed it, grew up on it and loved it; loved it so much that a stoppage in play was unthinkable.
You did not play for money.
In 1964, for example, Roberto Clemente led the National League in batting at .339, was an All-Star, won a Golden Glove.
His salary was $26,000 for the year.
The next year it jumped to $34,000.
Today everything is different. Players are millionaires. The game is run by accountants and agents and computer nerds. Algorithms mean more than statistics.
It’s a different game. Power rules … at bat, on the mound.
Pitchers don’t count as much as pitch count. Where you once looked for a winning angle, now the only angle they think of is launch angle.
Could Jim Leyland manage today?
That’s what we asked the 75-year-old Leyland as he enjoys retirement in Pittsburgh, while still helping the Tigers and also doing some work for Joe Torre in the commissioner’s office.
“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”
This was not an announcement that he’s looking to come back. Not at all.
“I mean, I’m tired, I’m old, I don’t want to manage, but I don’t think the players are any different. I don’t care what anyone says. People are people,” he said.
“I think the players look for leadership. I think they appreciate discipline, if it’s done right. I don’t think they have any problem at the top who is going to lead. There’s going to be disagreements and discussions and conversations and I think they respect that.”
That was the secret to Leyland’s ability to handle his players, from Barry Bonds to Kirk Gibson as a kid in the minor leagues just out of Michigan State.
“I can relate to young people as well as I ever did. I understand it. It’s common sense. You treat people the way you want to be treated, have a few little rules you want to go by.
“You do things right,” he said. “You tell them, we’re not going to do things my way. We’re going to do them the right way.”
That was always important, doing things right.
Respect the game, respect the fans, respect the writers and, most of all, respect your players.
“I think players love that,” Leyland said.
If the players haven’t changed, the game has and Leyland is aware of that but accepts it.
That doesn’t mean he has to like the game as it is played.
“We have all these new ideas — and don’t get the wrong idea because some of it’s good. But they have all this stuff in baseball now, a lot of smart people in baseball now, supposedly, and I’m sure they are and I have a high respect for that … but right now we have nothing but a home run, a walk and a strike out.”
“That’s boring to people,” he said. “I love the double, the triple. The triple was my Dad’s favorite play. They say now RBIs aren’t important. Well, they are. I understand their take on that, that some guys get so many more chances to drive in runs than other guys and that every RBI isn’t important … but you better have someone who knows how to knock in runs if you are going to win.”
He’s in favor of what they are trying to do with the computers and the new, improved statistical analyses.
He’s just not sure it’s as new as they say it is.
“There’s more information today than there ever was. Some of it is good, some of it is just reading material but we basically had the same type of information and you implemented it when you saw fit … match-ups, what did they hit with two strikes, what did a pitcher go to when he got in trouble?” he said.
“What they did was put a fancy term on it … analytics, sabermetrics … but basically it’s information,” he said. “There’s stuff that’s helpful now, especially in the pitching area with high speed cameras and stuff.”
And that, he said, is good.
“I’m old, but I’m not school. I never met a manager yet that didn’t want things that would help him win a game,” he said.
He was always looking for information as a manager, put it to the best of use.
“I liked to get that information,” he said. “You go over it with your coaches and you see what pertains to your team and this game you are playing tonight.”
The problem, he says, is that they make generalizations from the glut of information.
“See, they base their information on all the games being played by all the major league teams, but each game is a new chapter. The way you have to win a game on Tuesday may not be the same as the way you have to win a game on Wednesday,” he said.
“You can’t do it the same all the time. You, as manager, has to make the decision based on what things you have to do to win that game. A manager has options. For instance, one guy might steal, one guy might bunt, one guy might hit and run, one guy might not do anything.
“You take your personnel and do whatever you think gives you the best chance to win that particular day,” Leyland said. “We’re not talking about what you do over 162 games.
“We’re talking about that day and if you’re facing Roger Clemens, you better figure out a way to be disruptive to him. You face someone who doesn’t have quite a good stuff who you can whack around a little bit, you let your players play.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel