His spikes echoing in the concrete runway under the stands, Jim Leyland heads for the field, a fungo bat in one hand and a Marlboro in the other. He is basic baseball, and what brought him here to the Florida Marlins training camp tells much about baseball today.
Build it and they will come? Developers seem to have built a ballpark here to attract not just fans but a town. A sign on the center-field fence says Viera is a neat place to live. But except for the ballpark, Viera is pretty much hypothetical. Well, first things first.
Which is fine with Leyland. Other baseball people consider him one of the premier managers, even though he is 11 games under .500 (850-861) in his 11-year managerial career. He made his name wearing Pittsburgh black, but the ink was not black there, so today he is wearing Marlins teal.
The Pirates resemble what the Marlins were four seasons ago, an expansion team. Their 25 players will be paid a total of about $10-million this year, about $1-million less than the Giants' left fielder, Barry Bonds. Leyland will be paid about $1.5-million, more than the combined salaries of at least three of the Pirates' eight position players.
After last season, when the Marlins' Miami attendance declined for the third consecutive season (to 1.6-million; the Rockies have already sold more than 3.4-million tickets for this season), Marlins ownership, which is rich, decided to build the team the new-fashioned way, and see if fans will come. The Marlins spent $89-million on multiyear contracts for six big-name free agents. However, Leyland, who was weary of scuffling for victories in Pittsburgh, baseball's Bangladesh, was the Marlins' biggest catch.
Baseball has finally figured out how much managers matter. Baseball is so hard to play, only a few players _ Bonds, for one _ can do everything. The rest can do some things, and a manager's job, in making out the day's lineup and during the game, is to have the right player in the right spot at the right time.
Like most of the best managers (recently Tony La Russa, Sparky Anderson, Whitey Herzog, Tom Kelly and others), Leyland wasn't much of a player _ .222 average and four home runs in six minor-league seasons _ so he had to use his head. And at Pittsburgh in the years of salary-shedding, he learned how to wring maximum production from marginal players.
The Marlins' priciest free agent is a pitcher, Alex Fernandez, a Miami native. Before you come to his pages in the alphabetically arranged Marlins media guide, you encounter Luis Castillo from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, a town that is to middle infielders what Saudi Arabia is to oil. The Marlins also have Felix Heredia, another Dominican; Livan Hernandez, a Cuban; Ralph Milliard, from Curacao; Edgar Renteria, a Colombian; Devon White, born in Jamaica; Alex Delgado, a Venezuelan; Hector Kuilan, from Puerto Rico.
Miami, of course, has a Latin accent, but so, increasingly, does Major League Baseball. Last season baseball's most common surname (11) was Martinez, the second most common (10) was Perez, the fifth most common (7) was Rodriguez.
Asia also is becoming an exporter of major-leaguers, but no matter where players come from, the fundamental things apply, and the Marlins' fundamentals drill today is for base runners, practicing aggressive running when pitches are thrown in the dirt. Little things.
Like many modern managers, Leyland calls all his pitchers' throws to first base. Those "throw-overs" often are intended less to pick the runner off, or even to keep him close to the base, than to cause the runner to react in a way that might reveal his behavior when he is, or is not, planning to run. Leyland is paid to notice such small clues, and the other day he did.
An opposition base runner dug his left heel into the dirt when planning to steal on the next pitch. That means Leyland knows that man's habit and, perhaps by watching the other team's signals, he also knows its steal sign. "I want my guys to look like they're stealing on every pitch, because if you're playing someone like La Russa, and do one little thing different (when you are ready to steal), he's going to pitch out."
Who was the runner who dug in his heel? That is classified. I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.
Washington Post Writers Group