Glad to Be in the Game How does Pirate manager Jim Leyland feel as he watches his team disintegrate? Damn lucky

Jan. 25, 1993
Jan. 25, 1993

Table of Contents
Jan. 25, 1993


Glad to Be in the Game How does Pirate manager Jim Leyland feel as he watches his team disintegrate? Damn lucky

HE SITS IN A ROCKING CHAIR. HE wears a black-and-white
houndstooth-check jacket over a red turtleneck. The cigarettes on his
desk are in a black-and- white-and-red package. As he goes about his
work, the package is always within reach, as if the Marlboros were a
matching handbag.
''Most of these are very nice,'' Pittsburgh Pirate manager Jim
Leyland says as he sorts through hundreds of letters in his office at
Three Rivers Stadium. ''Some are holiday cards. Some are
'Congratulations on Manager of the Year.' Some are 'Why the hell
didn't you bunt in the playoffs?' '' Behind the desk is a low end
table. On the end table is a battered telephone. Hunched over the
telephone as if at a child's tea set, Leyland cold-calls
Pittsburghers to explain why he didn't bunt in the playoffs.
''The people who include their phone numbers, I put their letters
off in a pile and call them up,'' he says. ''Some people are shocked.
Some people will not believe it's me. And some people tell me, 'I
appreciate the call, but you still screwed up.' ''
This is the right way to handle it, he likes to say of the letters
or whatever it might be. I'm not anybody's boss, I'm an employee of
the Pittsburgh Pirates, he likes to say. Bill works for A.P. Parts,
Tom's the pastor at St. Aloysius, Jim works for the Pittsburgh
Pirates, Danny works for Permatex, Larry works for Mercy Hospital,
and Judy and Sharon are both in nursing, he likes to say, lumping
himself in with the rest of the labor- intensive Leyland family of
Perrysburg, Ohio.
He is one of seven children. His wife is one of 11 children. His
father was one of 16 children. His father worked the swing shift at
the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass factory in Toledo for 48 years. From his
father, Leyland learned to be professional, which is another favorite
phrase, and to bust ass, which is yet another.
''To be honest,'' says Leyland, eyeing a multicolored pile of
envelopes, ''I get a lot of letters where people are just chewing me
out. They're pissed off about everything. 'The -- -- players make too
much money. You're the worst -- -- manager I've ever seen.' Those, I
throw away. You can't reason with those people.''
More often, though, it is a letter like the one he got from a
little girl who enclosed her grade-school essay, an essay about the
man she so likes to watch on TV in the summer, the doleful stick
figure in the black baseball cap. The subject of the essay called
the author and invited her and her father to be his guests at a
Pirate game.
''You get a lot of requests,'' says Leyland, his right hand on
another stack of correspondence as if he's taking some kind of postal
oath. ''Obviously, you can't answer them all. You can only donate so
much equipment. But you know, maybe somebody would like you to call
their dad in the hospital and just talk to him. That's all. Just talk
to him, but it might make him feel better. And it's nice to be able
to do that, you know? That's life. That's the real world, you know?''

This is an article from the Jan. 25, 1993 issue Original Layout

He is constantly asked about loss. How will he survive the loss of
free- agent leftfielder Barry Bonds? How will he survive the loss of
free-agent pitcher Doug Drabek? How will he survive the loss of
traded second baseman Jose Lind? How has he survived the fire-sale
losses of Bobby Bonilla and John Smiley and Sid Bream over the past
two years? How has he survived last October's ghoulish loss to
Atlanta in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series? How has
he survived losing three straight playoffs?
Please. Leyland has another telephone call to make. This morning
his wife, Katie, made her first visit to the doctor since learning
that she is pregnant for the third time. Patrick Leyland is 15 months
old. Patrick was supposed to have a big brother, Connor, but the
Leylands lost him. He was stillborn in 1989.
Bent over the end table, Jim calls Katie to tell her he's coming
home. ''Everything all right?'' he asks when she answers. ''Are you
sure? What's the matter?''

He got sympathy cards. The last time anyone saw Jim Leyland, he
was on TV in his stocking feet, weeping in a postgame press
conference. The Braves had just scored two runs with two outs in the
bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the playoffs. A two-run pinch
single by someone named Francisco Cabrera. Bream, of all people,
scored the game-winner. And people everywhere began writing sympathy
cards to Jim Leyland, c/o the Pittsburgh Pirates.
''Everyone has been so apologetic,'' he says. ''And I appreciate
all the sympathy cards and everything. But, hey, it's a game. A big
game. A game I'll never forget. But a game I don't want to forget.
It's not a bad memory. It's a great memory. I think of how we came
back from a three-to-one deficit. How there was one out to go, and if
the guy hits it at somebody, we win.''
The sad residue of this cynical age is that nobody knows how good
they've got it until it's going . . . going . . . gone. You're in
Paris in April, but, dammit, you can't get a decent hamburger. You
make $3 million a year, but you spend your days bitching that the
other guy got $6 mil and a Testarossa. How could Leyland possibly
have enjoyed the playoffs?
How couldn't he? He remembers the excitement in the night air when
Atlanta fans would do ''the hoo-hoo chop or whatever the hell it is
they do.'' How his neighbors in Pittsburgh strung a banner across his
front yard that read THANKS FOR A GREAT YEAR! How his mother had
gotten all kinds of airtime on national TV during the playoffs.
Veronica Leyland had never looked lovelier, in fact. ''She was
happier than a hot hog in a cool mud puddle,'' says Leyland. ''All
her friends back home saw her. And, I mean, that's a thrill. And it
thrills me for my mom.''
When it was over, he went home and watched every pitch of every
World Series game. He went deer hunting and never squeezed off a
shot. He and Katie took their first Caribbean cruise. Meanwhile,
though, the sympathy cards accumulated in his office. He thinks he
understands why. ''People saw it as this devastating loss,'' he says.
''And they know I'm an emotional person. And I walked out of that
clubhouse in Atlanta in shock. But like I was trying to say in the
postgame press conference, That's life. Major leagues or little
leagues, you see one side jumping up and down, and on the other side,
little boys are crying. In our case, big boys were crying. That's
life. Be professional. Know how to handle winning -- which isn't
always easy. But know how to handle losing, too.''
Handle losing? The Pirates have won more games in the 1990s than
any other team in baseball. They just haven't gone to the Big Dance,
as he likes to say. Now, beset by the budget constraints of a
small-market club, they lose the league MVP in Bonds, who signed a
$43 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, and there was no
way the Pirates could get into that poker game, as Leyland likes to
He thought Pittsburgh might re-sign former Cy Young winner Drabek.
But the Houston Astros got to him first. Then Gold Glove second
baseman Lind and his $2 million salary went to the Kansas City Royals
for two guys you've never heard of. But the manager is an employee of
the Pittsburgh Pirates, so his frustration leaked out as only the
mildest gallows humor. ''Hear we got Puckett?'' he asked writers at
the baseball winter meetings. ''Gary Puckett. Hear we got McGwire?
Yeah, one of the McGuire Sisters.''
Hey, it's a game. Leyland learned that when he was named
Pittsburgh manager in 1986 and the Pirates lost 98 games. But slowly,
young players like Bonds and Bonilla and Drabek and Andy Van Slyke
emerged as stars. And among managers, so did Leyland. Yet most of
those stars are shining elsewhere now. Even Leyland's third base
coach, Gene Lamont, left to become the manager of the Chicago White
Sox. Everyone but Leyland, it seems, is moving on to a more verdant
market. Isn't it just a little bit depressing?
Depressing? ''Barry Bonds is the best player in baseball now,''
Leyland says. ''Guys we've had here are playing all over the country.
And it's a hell of a thrill. I think maybe I've had a small part in
it. I say more power to them. I just want them to be happy. I do try
to remind them all, though, that the rainbow is not necessarily
Who would know better? Leyland waves to a Three Rivers Stadium
parking lot attendant from the wheel of his Chrysler. He heads for
the home he bought four years ago. A 48-year-old man, and it is the
first house he has ever owned. It is nice, modest, all he needs. ''I
could never be a slave to a $600,000 house,'' he says.
He drives west, with an ashtray full of butts, for the Fort Pitt
Tunnel. A year ago in this tunnel, driving home after getting his W-2
form at the ballpark, Leyland noticed that his meal money for the
previous season was $9,000, or $3,000 more than his salary in his
first year as a minor league manager. His meal money was $9,000! He
remembers thinking in the tunnel: What in the hell?
''When I made $400 a month, I thought I was the richest son of a
bitch you ever saw,'' he says. ''I always had a buck in my pocket and
a pack of cigarettes. My dad always said, 'He's not gonna amount to
nothin', because you give him a buck and a pack of cigarettes, and
he's the happiest son of a bitch I've ever seen in my life.' Well,
now I make a lot more bucks. And not a damn thing has changed.''
Baseball is Disneyland. You don't think he knows it? He mentions
that the manager of the major league all-star team that tours Japan
for two weeks in November gets something like $60,000. It's a college
education in the bank! For two weeks of baseball in Japan! Imagine
what it's like to be a player! What're you going to do, ask for a pay
''I'll probably get in trouble for saying this,'' says Leyland,
''but it's + common sense that owners would not be paying these kinds
of salaries if they could not afford to pay them. I don't think
there's a workingman out there who wouldn't like to hear his boss
say, 'We're going to give you $22 an hour instead of $12.' Who would
turn that down? Are players overpaid? I don't know. The people who
are paying them must be doing pretty good. That's what I have to
think as an average guy who went to high school.''
Seven-thirty to 10 o'clock. It's another one of Leyland's phrases.
Seven- thirty to 10 o'clock on a summer evening is when all this
salary and free- agent and small-market b.s. stops, and a baseball
game is all there is. What the hell? The money is ridiculous, but you
can believe him when he says he doesn't give a -- -- about it. ''The
Number One most fortunate thing in my life,'' says Leyland, ''is I've
made a living doing what I loved most as a boy.''
So he makes a point of shagging balls on the outfield grass every
time he goes to Wrigley Field. He always walks to Busch Stadium from
the Pirates' hotel in St. Louis and admires the human tide in red and
white, the Cardinal fans who have driven in for the series. He tells
a story of his first two days in the big leagues, as a White Sox
coach in 1982: ''Here I walk into Yankee Stadium for a workout, this
hayseed from Perrysburg, and holy -- -- , there's my alltime hero,
Yogi Berra, and I'm thinking back to our Little League field at home,
and I'm thinking, Jesus, is this place going to be full tomorrow? And
the next day, I'm standing in front of 50,000 at Yankee Stadium, a
peon third base coach, but still. . . .''
Ten years later, not a damn thing has changed. ''There are nights
when things flow so smooth, I just sit and marvel at what's going on
around me,'' he says. ''Some of the plays Lind made. The catches Van
Slyke makes. The opposition, too. I love to watch Will Clark hit. I
don't like it as much when there's two men on, but I love to watch
him hit. Or Greg Maddux pitch. When Eddie Murray set a record for
RBIs this year, here I was. Mike Schmidt hit his 500th home run
against us. Wasn't too pleasant at the time, but what an
accomplishment! And here I am, a little Double A backup catcher, and,
Christ, I'm the manager! I mean, it's hard to believe, you know? I'm
seeing history and I'm thinking: -- -- , I'm here, I'm in uniform,
I'm in this dugout -- what in the hell is going on here?''

Smoke billows into the Leyland living room. Either Brook the
Baby-sitter is electing a new pope in the kitchen or the hamburger
she is frying for Jim's lunch is being very well done.
''Is Brook burning the house down?'' Katie asks. Katie is 17 years
younger than her husband. (I'd rather smell perfume than Ben-Gay,
Leyland likes to say.) Not 30 minutes after returning from the
doctor, Katie has a house afire and the workmen hammering on an
additional room out back and Patrick on the loose and a strange
reporter on her sofa.
''I don't know if you know,'' she finally tells her visitor, ''but
we lost our first child. We still don't know why. So with Patrick, I
had to spend three or four days of each week in the hospital. And I
just found out this morning that I'm going to have to do the same
thing this time. I'm not complaining. Believe me, I'm not. Some
people can't have children. . . .''
In a landmark piece of family planning, the baby is due at the
All-Star break. When the Leylands learned of the pregnancy just
before the baseball winter meetings in December, they decided
immediately that the godfather would be their best friend from
Pittsburgh, Carl Barger. Katie was working in the Pirate promotions
department when she met Jim. The team president at the time was
Barger. The three became fast friends, and even after Barger left the
Pirates to become president of the Florida Marlins, it didn't
diminish the amount of time he spent at the Leyland house, where a
room was always ready for him.
The winter meetings were held last month in a Louisville hotel.
There, as the wheels were falling off Jim's team, Barger fell dead of
a heart attack outside a conference room. At a memorial service in
Pittsburgh, Jim eulogized his friend. But what could he say, really?
''Everyone who was there knows I cry when the flowers come up in the
springtime,'' he says. ''So they were all waiting for me to break
down. But I did not break down one bit. It's too difficult to explain
to someone else how I feel about Carl Barger. We shared too many
things. Katie and I will miss him very much. We loved Carl.''
Jim keeps waiting for his friend to ring the doorbell. He can see
Barger waiting on the front stoop, shivering in his trench coat,
yelling, ''My man! My man!'' -- which is what he always called Jim.
Whenever Katie plays the messages on the answering machine, she waits
to hear his voice, because Barger left a message nearly every day.
''Carl was going to be the baby's godfather,'' says Jim. ''And he
still will be the baby's godfather.''
; This is the right way to handle it. With loyalty and respect.
And it is why, two springs ago in Bradenton, Fla., Leyland went
ballistic on Bonds when he saw the temperamental outfielder get in
the face of Pirate coach Bill Virdon during a workout. It is why he
calls his brother Tom ''Father,'' because that is the honorific Tom
earned when he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. It is why the
late Carl Barger will be the baby's godfather.
Be professional. Know how to handle losing. You make a mistake if
you think a man who handles loss with such grace can do without
winning. One of the things that hurts him most about Barger's death
is that Leyland was so looking forward to stomping the Marlins next
season, and he knows how badly Barger wanted to do the same thing to
the Pirates. ''Holy God, he was such a fierce competitor,'' says
Leyland. ''We would have been at each other's throats.''
Seven-thirty to 10 o'clock. It is Leyland's nature to look
beleaguered. But there are nights, he admits, when he walks through
the clubhouse as the players undress, gathers his coaches in his
office, shuts the door and leans back in that rocking chair. Then he
grins at his staff, as if they're all in on a grand conspiracy, and
he says, ''Daaaaamn, what a game!''