The voice is low. A smokers voice. Jim Leyland doesn't smoke cigarettes any more, but for most of his 45 years he was a two-pack man, and his words arrive with a rough edge that makes you think about late nights, jukebox music and roadhouse conversation. He talks, and a freight train seems to disappear into the distance.
This is an article from the Aug. 27, 1990 issue
"I'd come home, I'd be broke again," he says. "I'd have to borrow money. My older brother, Bill, he'd help me out. A lot of people would help me out. I'd work. I worked every winter. I worked in the post office. I worked in the glass company. I worked construction. I drove a truck."
Truck stops come to mind. A cigarette. A cup of coffee. Leyland doesn't drink coffee anymore, but he used to drink about a barrel a day. You can see him with the cigarette and the coffee. A Styrofoam cup. A Formica counter. A waitress wanting to know whether he would like the cherry pie for dessert.
"I'd be home for about two months every year," he says. "I'd stay in my old room and help out my mom and dad. I'd take 'em to the store. Run errands. My brothers and sisters helped the rest of the year. Then it would be my time."
In his eyes there is the sadness of a lone rider. Wasn't that what he was—a lone rider? He was one of those American tumbleweeds, moving from small town to small town, from Rocky Mount, N.C., to Montgomery, Ala., to Lakeland, Fla., to Clinton, Iowa, to Evansville, Ind. His roots were no deeper than the tread on the tires of his latest used car. No entanglements. The idea that he would live in a frame house with a white picket fence was as foreign to him as the idea that someday he might become the king of England.
"I never wanted anything else but baseball," he says. "It was in the blood. I had to be free. I had to be ready to move. If all you've got is your car and your pitching machine, you can throw the pitching machine in the back seat and be heading south in a minute."
He laughs. The buzz that surrounds him now—as the team he manages, the Pittsburgh Pirates, clings to first place in the National League East—is far removed from what he went through in those other years. How long was he in the minors before he put on his first major league uniform? Eighteen years. How many bus rides did he take? How many kids did he counsel on the art and science of swinging at a moving baseball? How many cups of coffee did he drink?
He lived the entire season in a hotel. He would put everything he owned into a suitcase and check out at the start of each road trip. Then he would check back in when the team returned. One year his salary was $400 per month.
First place? The Pittsburgh Pirates? The National League? Jim Leyland? The ships that he sailed for the longest time were on a different, faraway baseball sea. "I didn't own anything," he says. "When I came to Pittsburgh, I'd never owned a house. A house? I'd never owned furniture. I didn't even own a lamp."
He now owns a house. He owns a lamp. He bought a condo before he bought the house. He didn't know what to do about the furniture. He asked a young woman in the Pirate promotions department, Katie O'Connor, to come to the store with him. She did. That was back in 1986. A year later they were married. The tumbleweed rolls no more.
"I knew the first day of minor league training camp that I never was going to play baseball in the major leagues," says Leyland. "I'd had hopes—everyone who signs a contract has high hopes—but once I saw those other players and how good they were, I knew I didn't have a chance."
The year was 1964. The place was Lakeland, home of the Detroit Tigers' minor league complex. The obvious next move was to fold those high hopes into a neat square, place them in his wallet and return home to Perrysburg, Ohio, to begin life in the workaday world. Isn't that what most people do? Adjust.
Leyland adjusted in another direction. Can't make the major leagues? Fine. He would try to make the minors. In one day, he changed a boyhood dream. He took away all those zeros at the end of his paycheck. He took away the headlines and the innocent expectations. Just playing baseball was enough. Surviving.
"I know now that I wasn't signed with the idea that someday I could play in the major leagues," he says. "I was a catcher. Teams like to sign a lot of catchers, just for training camp, because they need someone to catch all those pitchers."
For six years, from 1964 to '69, he played in the lower reaches of Detroit's organizational chart, never rising above Double A ball, never batting much higher than .200. He tried all the stances, all the gimmicks. He still couldn't hit, especially for power. He hit four home runs in those six years and remembers every one of them. To make himself useful, he took on every odd job possible. Need someone to coach first base? Need someone to drive the bus? Need someone in the bullpen?
He would return to Perrysburg (pop. 10,215) in the off-season and answer the embarrassing question with honesty.
"How'd you do?"
"Lousy. I batted .200."
He was, he thinks, the only Perrysburg High grad ever to sign a pro baseball contract. (Another kid he knew who was three years older, Jerry Glanville, was moving into a football career, but that's another story.) Lousy, he would tell the people of Perrysburg; then he would add, "But I was doing something I love."
Leyland says, "I had the fever. I never thought about quitting. I always had the fever."
The fever came mostly from inside, but it also came from his father, James. He had started young Jim playing baseball and had taken him to Cleveland in 1954 for his first major league game. James's advice to his five boys and two girls: If you find something you want to do, stick with it. Give it your best shot. One of the sons, Tom, became a priest. Jim played ball with the same sense of vocation.
In 1970, at 25, the Tigers offered him a job as a minor league coach in Montgomery. His playing career was finished because room had to be made for younger baseball travelers. He considered alternatives for approximately two minutes. What would he do if he returned home? He probably would go to college. He probably would major in phys ed. He probably would try to get a job coaching baseball. He was already being offered a job coaching baseball. He took the job.
"I never had plans beyond where I was," he says. "That's the truth. I never had this dream that, Well, all right, I'll make the big leagues as a manager. I always just tried to do the best job where I was. I guess there was one year in Triple A—we won the pennant at Evansville, and I started thinking I was the next John McGraw. But until then, I never had thought about the big leagues. It wasn't something I thought was possible."
He was 26 when he managed his first team, Detroit's rookie league club in Bristol, Va. The face of the first kid he released still appears to him sometimes—a good-looking kid from New Jersey. Leyland was determined to look straight into his eyes when he broke the news. He would be strong. The kid started crying and said, "If I could play baseball for anyone, I'd want to play for you." Leyland started crying along with him.
For 11 seasons, in five different towns and on all levels of the minors, Leyland learned lessons on the art of handling young men. He would appear at spring training and discuss ideas with the Tigers' old baseball men—Hoot Evers and Stubby Overmire and Fred Hatfield. He would watch Sparky Anderson, Detroit's manager, to see how he walked. Didn't Sparky look like the boss, without saying a word? How did he do that?
There aren't a lot of books about how to manage a pro baseball team because there aren't a lot of job openings in the field. Everyone has to write his own book. Longhand. "The one thing I decided to do from the beginning was to be honest," says Leyland. "That is the most important thing. Be honest. Tell a guy what you really think about him. He might not like it, but if he knows you're honest, he has to respect you. You start playing games with people and you're lost. This was another lesson from my father. He was a foreman. He supervised men at the glass factory in Toledo. I watched how he did it."
The '70s were his lone-rider years. There was a marriage in the middle that lasted just a short time. How could someone like Leyland commit to a marriage? He had to keep going, be ready to travel to the next diamond under the next set of lights at the edge of the next small town. He was consumed by the game. The fever.
He had good teams and bad teams. He saw all possible situations. Pitchers' girlfriends became pregnant, third basemen's arms suddenly went dead, and outfielders appeared who had tons of ability but only a few ounces of desire. He managed 18-year-old phenoms on the way up, and 34-year-old veterans on the way down. He stayed up late. He woke up early. He made no money. He loved it all.
"I loved every place I went," he says. "People say, 'You managed in Clinton, Iowa?' I loved it. The people would say hello to you on the street, talk about the team. Ladies would bake apple pies and bring them to the ballpark for you. Clinton, Iowa, was wonderful."
In 1981 the back-roads tour ended. Tony La Russa, then manager of the Chicago White Sox, asked Leyland to be his third base coach. At 36, Leyland was finally in the bigs. Was he impressed?
"We were scheduled to open in Chicago, but there was snow and the entire series was postponed," he says. "We opened instead in New York on Easter Sunday against the Yankees. We went to New York—second time I'd ever been there in my life—and on Saturday night the general manager, Roland Hemond, saw I wasn't doing anything. He asked me if I wanted to come along to a concert at Carnegie Hall. I mean, Carnegie Hall. I never had thought....
"The next day, we opened in Yankee Stadium. A doubleheader. I'm just walking in the outfield, out near the monuments. I'm standing next to Yogi Berra. Two clean uniforms are in my locker. My shoes have been shined and set out for me. We beat the New York Yankees in both games. At Yankee Stadium!"
Four years later, in November '85, Ley-land was hired to manage the woeful Pirates. A press conference was held. He was introduced as a bright young baseball mind. It was as if he had appeared from nowhere. Twenty-two years of nowhere.
"The first game in Pittsburgh, I stood on that field," he says. "I looked into the stands. I saw my father. I was just so proud, and I knew he was proud."
The low voice drops a little lower. He has been the Pirate manager now for five years. He is sitting in the visiting manager's office at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. His team is in first place. He wipes his eyes with his right hand.
On Dec. 31, Leyland gave up the coffee. On March 1, he gave up the cigarettes. He isn't exactly sure why he gave up either, except that he decided he could not give up one without the other. He didn't like the way the television cameras always seemed to find him in the dugout with a cigarette. He also didn't like the control his habits had over him.
He now smokes a cigar after a game. He drinks tea. It would seem that with the division race heating up, this would be a time to backslide, but he is calmer than ever. He talks with a reasoned voice in the midst of a growing storm.
"I'm not a great believer in momentum or any of that," he says. "I think that your momentum is as good as your next starting pitcher. Talent is what is important, and this club has talent—a lot of talent. What I want are guys who can grind it out day after day and not fluctuate."
He somehow has found peace along with a spot in the majors. The fever still has its hold—he still swallows losses as if they were doses of castor oil—but there is other furniture in his life. There is furniture, period.
"Isn't it crazy?" says Katie. "I went with him to pick out the furniture. I never had any idea that I'd have to live with it. If I had known that, I might have picked out some other things."
Katie is 29. There are jokes sometimes about the fact that a middle-aged guy is married to a much younger woman. Leyland says he has decided that at his age, he would much rather smell perfume around him than liniment. He laughs. He also says he has never been happier in his life.
Leyland has had sad times amidst the happiness. His father died a year and a half ago. The loss still bothers him. On Oct. 7, 1989, Katie gave birth to a stillborn baby. Leyland lived in the hospital with Katie for four days, talking and crying and figuring out what to do next. They want to have another baby as soon as possible.
"You learn when these things happen," says Leyland. "You learn not to take yourself too seriously."
The trip is finished. He is home. In Pittsburgh.