Jim Leyland sat in what was once the dispatcher’s office of a trucking terminal and talked about how his managing days were over.
“I’ve had my time,” Leyland said. “I’ve had chances to go back and manage again and I don’t want to do it. I don’t have the desire to do that anymore. I’m perfectly content to do what I’m doing. I enjoy my life.”
That was in the spring of 2003, and the man who led the Marlins to victory in the 1997 World Series and won National League manager of the year awards in 1990 and 1992 with the Pirates was a world away from the major leagues.
While his day job was serving as a spring training instructor and special assignment scout for the Cardinals, he was also helping coach his son Patrick’s traveling team of Little League-aged players. He spent many hours at the old trucking terminal in New Brighton, Pa., that served as the indoor facility for the Beaver Valley Baseball Club.
Yet, a little more than three years later, Leyland wasn’t just back managing in the major leagues after six years in his low-stress job with the Cardinals. He was back in the World Series with a franchise that had lost its way for more than a decade.
Leyland guided the Detroit Tigers, who had suffered through 12 straight losing seasons, to an improbable American League pennant in 2006 before falling to the underdog Cardinals in the World Series. Just a year earlier the Tigers went 71-91, costing franchise icon Alan Trammell his job as manager, and the team was just three years removed from a 43-119 finish–just one loss short of the major league record.
Leyland’s revival in Detroit has earned him Baseball America’s Major League Manager of the Year award.
“It was a very gratifying season in a lot of ways,” Leyland said. “When I came here, I felt this was an organization that was ready to start winning but I never thought we’d be in the World Series in my first year. It was just a great, great story.”
And a story that hit close to home for the 61-year-old who had called it quits in 1999 after one season with the Rockies. Leyland, who had spent 13 years managing the Pirates (1986-96) and Marlins (1997-98), walked away from the final two years and $4 million on his contract in Denver.
“I had reached the point where I just didn’t have the energy to manage anymore and I never thought that fire would come back,” Leyland said. “I was sure I had managed my last game.”
However, being around the Cardinals and Tony La Russa, baseball’s third all-time winningest manager, rekindled a spark. Leyland interviewed for the Phillies’ managerial vacancy following the 2004 season after Larry Bowa was fired, but lost out to Charlie Manuel.
When the 2005 season ended, Leyland had his heart set on two jobs. One was a return to the Pirates, as he has continued to call Pittsburgh home since leaving for the Marlins. The other was the Tigers.
A Lifetime In Baseball
Leyland grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, just 60 miles down Interstate 75 from Detroit. It was the Tigers who gave the good-field, no-hit catcher a chance to play professionally then hired him as a minor league manager following an eight-year career that ended in Double-A.
Leyland spent 11 seasons managing in the Tigers farm system before becoming La Russa’s third-base coach with the White Sox in 1985.
Though Leyland had been away from the organization for nearly a quarter-century, he was still a Tiger at heart. It pained him to watch his old organization become downtrodden, even with the move from ancient Tiger Stadium to Comerica Park in 2000.
However, the Tigers had slowly been gaining respectability as oft-criticized owner Mike Ilitch opened the checkbook and president/general manager Dave Dombrowski used the money to lure veteran free agents like lefthander Kenny Rogers, closer Todd Jones, catcher Ivan Rodriguez and right fielder Magglio Ordonez to blend with an impressive group of young players, such as righthanders Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya and center fielder Curtis Granderson.
“You can have the right players,” said Tigers third-base coach Gene Lamont, who managed the Pirates for four years as Leyland’s successor after a four-year stint with the White Sox. “But you also need the right man to put those players all together and Jim was that guy.
“From the first day of spring training, he let the players know what was expected of them to be a winning team, and they listened to him.”
“He’s an old-school manager but yet you know that he really cares about you,” Granderson said. “He can be tough but he also has a soft side and he’s just a great communicator. You have so much respect for him that you want to win so badly for him.”
Fans also fell in love with Leyland as nearly 2.6 million came through the turnstiles in the regular season, after attendance had dipped to 1.3 million during the disastrous 2003 season.
The attendance count meant as much to Leyland as the 95 wins that lifted the Tigers to an American League wild-card berth into the playoffs. They knocked off the Yankees in four games then swept the Athletics in four games to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1984.
“To me, the best part of the whole season was seeing the fans get excited again,” Leyland said. “It was great to see the ballpark sold out night after night. It was fun to walk down the street and see so many people wearing Tigers caps or shirts.
“Detroit has always been a great baseball town. To see it become that way again is what I’ll always remember the most about this season.”