Lots of reasons to like the retiring Jim Leyland, and to miss him

Monday October 21st, 2013

Jim Leyland could be gruff but he frequently showed his emotions, most recently at his retirement press conference.
Paul Sancya/AP

DETROIT -- Jim Leyland retired Monday. I covered him and the Detroit Tigers for many years. He could be gruff. He often cut off questions he didn't like by saying "We're not going to talk about that" and sometimes cut off questions he thought he wouldn't like before they were even asked. He routinely ate his postgame meal while he was being interviewed on live television; smoked cigarettes in a cramped, windowless office for most of his media sessions, with no regard for the lungs around him; and refused to answer the most innocuous questions about performance-enhancing drugs. He occasionally chastised questioners' motives by barking "You're fishing!" got annoyed when people asked about his lineup; and would tell the gathered media if somebody wrote something that ticked him off, instead of addressing it one-on-one with the writer.

And yet: I like him. I like him a lot. This is why.

* * *

Let's start with the cigarettes. That's the first thing people discuss when they discuss Leyland. They don't talk about his World Series championship with the Florida Marlins, or his two pennants and four American League Championship Series berths with the Tigers, or how he turned around the Pittsburgh Pirates so many years ago. No. These days, we tend to focus on the quirkiest or worst qualities in famous people, because it's easier to turn them into cartoon characters that way, and so with Jim Leyland, we talk about cigarettes.

Yes, he smokes. A lot. Leyland told me once that he planned to quit smoking in the offseason. He had quit before, but he always went back. I saw him a few months later and he admitted he had not quit. The cigarettes aged his face, probably helped turn his hair white, and contributed to the sense that he was a cranky old man.

If that's what you saw, you missed the real Leyland. You missed him singing in the clubhouse -- he sang well enough that he could do it in front of a packed theater of people who had no idea he was a baseball manager. You missed his honesty, his complete inability to take credit for anything, and his willingness to talk baseball with anybody who could do it respectfully and intelligently.

He probably said "that's a good question" more than anybody else in sports. He was more likely to get mad at a well-known media person than an intern. He never picked on the little guy, because to the end, he was one. Leyland never played in the majors, and always remembered: Baseball didn't need him.

He once told Sports Illustrated that before he became a major league manager, he didn't own a house. He didn't own furniture.

"I didn't even own a lamp," he said.

He said Monday that he was "proudest" of earning the respect of the biggest stars in the game: Barry Bonds, Miguel Cabrera, Gary Sheffield, Justin Verlander.

Baseball managers are scrutinized by the minute, and mostly we go by what we see: a bizarre lineup, a bunt or intentional walk, too many pitching changes. We miss most of what matters. A few games into the 2006 season, his first with Detroit, Leyland berated his team for a lackadaisical loss; the team had been losing forever and was used to it. A manager only has so many of those bullets. Leyland knew when to use his. His team's effort improved immediately.

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Sometimes the Tigers would call up a kid from the minors as an injury replacement, and that night Leyland would give him a start. Often, he would put him near the top of the lineup. It was Leyland's way of letting the rookie know that if he was in The Show, he belonged, and he was expected to produce. A pep talk wouldn't do it.

He supported his most talented players but let them know: Hustling was imperative. He connected with his worst players but let them know: Talent trumps all. He knew it because he didn't have much. He refused to buy into media-driven narratives about his team's energy or the clubhouse mood. He knew their energy, and he knew the mood.

Once in a while he would get so fed up with the media that he would cancel his pregame sessions. But he was still available; you just had to go in and ask him if he had a minute. Leyland probably spent more time with the media that way than if he had just continued the group session. But it winnowed out most of the stupid questions. And after a few days he would get over it and let everybody in again.

He wouldn't talk about steroids or Cabrera's drinking; Leyland was a scrapper and a smoker, so he understood the impulses that led to other abuses. He would not have lasted a month in New York or Philadelphia, and he knew it. But you could ask about most other things. In an era when so many managers speak out in clichés in a sterile press-conference room, Leyland was the exception. He let you into his world. That secondhand smoke was a small entry fee.

"I don't know anything about hitting," he said often, which was his way of reminding the world he had been a horsecrap minor league hitter. But of course, he did know about hitting, and he understood pitching, and he shared more insights about the game he loved than almost any other manager.

He understood that second-guessing was part of baseball, as long as you respected his first guess. In his eight years in Detroit, I don't think I ever saw him do something purely out of ego.

"You can say a lot of things about me," he said Monday, "but I've never taken a paycheck that I didn't think I earned."

This was the quality that most defined him. He quit as manager of the Colorado Rockies after one year because he didn't like it; he was a Midwestern guy in the mountains, an old-school guy managing 10-8 games in altitude, and it wasn't him. He walked away from a lot of money when he did that. But he was true to himself.

He was genuinely funny; earlier this year, he said his favorite player on the team was Nick Castellanos, because "I just found out his father was a lung surgeon." Many times, he arrived at the Tigers' winter caravan or a spring training day with a joke in mind. Other times he ad-libbed. Most of the jokes were not printable.

He flashed the humor again Monday: "We have a good clubhouse because I never go in it." Typical Leyland: funny, and self-deprecating. But it was not true. He would occasionally chastise players for playing cards before a game or slap a guy on the back and share a joke if he was struggling.

He loathed know-it-all stat-heads and self-anointed managing geniuses, and that made him sound like a dinosaur sometimes. But I don't think he really hated new stats and strategies as much as he hated the arrogance that sometimes accompanied them. In Leyland's mind, anybody associated with Major League Baseball was lucky, and anybody who couldn't see that had a problem. Before the first pitch on Opening Day, he took a moment to think of his mom and dad.

* * *

Leyland cried at his retirement press conference. You see this sometimes from rough-skinned coaching lifers -- they have been stoic and intense for so long, and then the emotions all burst out at once. But this was different. Leyland has cried in public many times. He did it when his team clinched its division, or won a big playoff game.

"I'm very emotional most of the time," he said Monday. "I'm not proud of that, but I am."

He is also not embarrassed by it. This, I think, is why he endured -- phonies have an expiration date, and Leyland was no phony. If you saw him cry, so what? This is who he is.

He was a mess after former Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych died. Leyland had managed Fidrych in the minor leagues, and the thought of Fidrych dying at age 54 hit him hard. But other times, a famous baseball figure would die at age 90 or 93, and if Leyland had any connection to the man, somebody would ask Leyland about him. He would share a story and some thoughts, and then he would point out: That person was old when he passed, and he had lived a heck of a life. If you looked through the cigarette smoke, you could see the man's point.

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