Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland still earning respect

DETROIT — Craggy-faced, whippet-thin, gray-(for-what's-left)-haired and nearly 68, Jim Leyland is well beyond being offended.

"I always got a kick out of when I go home at the end of a baseball season, somebody says, 'Boy, you look bad,' " he said. "And I always tell them: 'Well, show me a manager that looks like Paul Newman after 162 games, and I will show you a guy that didn't do a very good job.' "

Leyland is not headed home to Pittsburgh just yet after another good job, one of three — soon to be two — managers still working, his Tigers flying out to either St. Louis or San Francisco this week for their second World Series appearance in his seven seasons in their dugout.

"There's nobody in baseball better than he is; there's other guys as good as he is," said Tony La Russa. "You have to have a whole bunch of strengths. He handles pitching. He's got a great game feel.

"I think his biggest strength is the trust and respect he earns with players over the years. Jim is a very unique personality. He's so competitive. But he does it the right way."

La Russa should know, because he's the one who got Leyland to the majors after seven years as a very bad minor-league player ("I was lousy, he was lousier," La Russa jokes now) and 11 as a very good minor-league manager in the Tigers organization, hiring him in 1982 as third-base coach with the White Sox.

They met managing against each other in 1979 — Leyland at Triple-A Evansville, La Russa at Iowa until an August promotion to Chicago — and soon started a tight friendship, and mutual admiration, that still rages today.

"He has this incredible way to present things," said La Russa, now an MLB executive. "He's so consistently sincere, and he's never had a bad day that way. He's really amazing. I've learned a lot from him."

Don Zimmer knows, too, having grown extremely close with Leyland since first meeting him in the mid 1960s at — no surprise to anyone who knows either — Derby Lane. They get together daily whenever the Tigers are in town — Leyland sat with Zimmer during his dialysis treatment during their June visit — and now one calls the other every single day.

"There's no phony about him; it's Jim Leyland," said Zimmer, 81, the Rays senior adviser. "And that's the way he treats his players. If he has to get on your (butt), he would, and that's it. …

"He gets out of his players what he should get out of them. That's what it is. And everyone likes playing for Jimmy Leyland. I haven't heard anyone in my life say he didn't like Jim Leyland."

There's probably something fitting about Leyland being in Detroit, since there's as much talk around him about respect as there is with Aretha Franklin.

And it's obvious that it is important that it be mutual.

Leyland has always felt that because he never played in the majors he had a tougher challenge as a manager and had to work harder, even at winning over his own players, whereas an established big-leaguer walked in the door with cache.

"I try to just do my job and not talk too much about it," he said, "and hopefully you gain their respect."

And now that he has it, he makes a point to return it, symbolically, by staying mostly out of the clubhouse, and literally.

"You kind of try to orchestrate everything, but I think you give the players their space," Leyland said. "You trust your players. You trust their ability. You trust they will have themselves ready to play. And you try to stay out of the way.

"I mean, they're the show. That's the way it is supposed to be. So I try to show them that respect."

His players, from stars such as Justin Verlander to those on the end of the bench, tend to be fiercely loyal in appreciation and marvel when outsiders don't get it. "I don't think he's earned the need to be questioned so much," reliever Phil Coke said.

Leyland has won nearly 1,700 games (15th on the all-time list, tops among actives) in 21 seasons with Pittsburgh, Florida, Colorado and Detroit; three manager of the year awards; pennants in both leagues; and the 1997 World Series with the Marlins. He is the first manager to take the Tigers to back-to-back postseason berths since 1934-35.

And you're not going to hear him brag. "I think all good managers have one thing in common," he said. "When you win, you credit the players, and when you lose, you shoulder the responsibility."

Leyland admits this was the most stressful of his 21 seasons as a big-league manager, which makes sense since he was given a team that, with the addition of Prince Fielder and a $132 million payroll, was supposed to win and go far yet spent most of the summer struggling just to get to the top of the middling AL Central.

"That's just the way this works," he said.

Also, though you won't hear him say it, that he doesn't yet have a contract for next season, finishing out a one-year extension added last August. Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski did say during Thursday's pennant-clinching celebration — as if he had any choice — that it's just a matter of time for a new deal to be worked out.

La Russa went out on top, retiring after winning last year's World Series with the Cardinals, but the Tampa native's not counting on his old buddy to join him just yet.

"He's got as much passion now as the first day he ever managed; you can tell just by looking at his face in the ninth inning," La Russa said. "He loves the competition. He loves the game of baseball. And he knows he does it well. He's very special."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

 
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