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Touching 'Em All

Oct. 23, 2006
Oct. 23, 2006

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Oct. 23, 2006

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Touching 'Em All

The auto industry has taken a beating and, for the better part of the last two decades, so too has Detroit's baseball team, but Jim Leyland's Tigers have lit up the Motor City with their overpowering run to the World Series

Cigarette smokecoiled upward from the ashtray and, illuminated by the fluorescent lightsabove, hung in a thin bluish cloud around the wise, old, gray head of JimLeyland. The manager of the Detroit Tigers, dressed for baseball last Saturdayfive hours before game time, pulled his stockinged feet off his desk atComerica Park and paced toward the bathroom. He looked in the mirror, foundnothing to occupy this slowly passing time except for smoothing the hair on theback of his head, turned and paced back to his desk. "I feel good. I feelanxious," said Leyland, who upon waking at 7:15 that morning had beenvisited by his trusted muse, his gut feeling, and had made his last lineupdecision: Rookie Alexis Gomez would be his DH against the Oakland A's in Game 4of the American League Championship Series. ¶ Smoke and mirrors. That wouldseem as good an explanation as any for why the Tigers--one year removed from a91-loss season, three years from being the losingest outfit in AL history (119losses), 13 years from their last winning season and 22 from their last WorldSeries--are in the Fall Classic, having swept Oakland with an unprecedentedpostseason run to the AL pennant. Said injured lefthander Mike Maroth, one of10 Tigers left from the rock-bottom 2003 bunch, after the 6--3 clincher onSaturday, "It's still surreal for me to realize the Detroit Tigers aregoing to the World Series!" ¶ In no other city could the 102nd World Seriespossibly be more meaningful. First, Detroit was one of only six cities that hadnot made a Series appearance since 1984. Second, the five other laggards(Arlington, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Seattle) hadn't suffered asmany lost games as Detroit had in those 22 long years or, far worse, as manylost jobs. The Tigers' success comes against the backdrop of a slumping U.S.auto industry that has led to the elimination of 73,000 jobs in the past threeyears with another 85,000 cuts, according to a University of Michigan study,expected by 2008. The state's average household income has fallen below thenational average for the first time since the federal government began trackingsuch figures in the 1960s. "People are hurting," closer Todd Jonessays, "so hopefully for three hours each night we can give them somethingto enjoy."

This is an article from the Oct. 23, 2006 issue Original Layout

Truth is, thereturn of the World Series to Detroit isn't the product of smoke and mirrorsbut, as much as anything, the sweat and tears of Leyland, who in one year hasjoined the company of Lee Iacocca in the pantheon of Detroit turnaround kings.Having returned to the dugout after a six-year recovery from managerialburnout, Leyland, 61, did more than mold the Tigers into winners. He reaffirmedthe worth and influence of a hands-on manager. Says Jones, "He's probablyresponsible for 20 to 25 wins just by keeping guys confident and putting guysin situations where they can succeed."

That the Tigerswere, in every sense, Leyland's team was never more obvious than on the eve ofthe ALCS. He closed the door to the visiting clubhouse of Oakland's McAfeeColiseum and gathered his team for a meeting. "I want to read yousomething," he began. Back in spring training, when nobody--not Leyland,not his coaches, not his players--considered the possibility of Detroit'splaying in the World Series, Leyland showed his coaches an essay that his then14-year-old son, Patrick, had written about what defines a winner. The proudfather showed the essay (for which Patrick had earned an A-plus) to his staff,then put it away for the next six months.

On Oct. 9, freshoff three straight ALDS wins over the Yankees, Leyland broke out the essay andread it aloud to his team. By the end of it, Leyland's voice was cracking andhis eyes were welling with tears. Five days later, on the morning of Game 4against the A's, Leyland turned emotional again just thinking about it."Not just because I'm a proud father, and I am," he said, "butbecause [Patrick] captured in his own words the kind of things we're trying toaccomplish here. And what really got me was, after I was done reading it, abunch of guys came up to me and said, 'Skip, can you make a copy of that? Iwant a copy for myself.'"

The Tigers haveplayed inspired baseball, not only winning seven straight in the postseason butalso taking the last six by three or more runs. No team had ever won more thanfour straight postseason games by that margin. Detroit so dominated Oaklandthat if this had been a Ryder Cup, the gentlemanly thing for the A's would havebeen to concede the ALCS before its official completion.

It hardly matteredthat the Tigers lost their first baseman (Sean Casey) and most valuablereliever (Joel Zumaya) to injuries, or that Leyland became the first manager towin three straight postseason games with a different starting shortstop in eachgame (Carlos Guillen, Neifi Perez and Ramon Santiago). Detroit'sacetylene-torch pitchers held Oakland to nine runs and a .161 average withrunners on. At the same time, the Tigers' lineup hummed along with such balancethat every spot in the order accounted for at least two runs scored. The lastthree came in especially dramatic fashion, when rightfielder Magglio Ordonezbecame only the eighth player to end a postseason series with a home run,blasting a three-run walk-off shot against Huston Street in the 6--3 coda.

"He makes usfeel bulletproof," Jones says of Leyland. "If he batted me sixth, I'dfeel like I was going to get two hits."

Says third basecoach Gene Lamont, one of Leyland's closest friends since they played togetherin the Detroit minor league system in 1966, "After Jim took the job, wetalked, and he said, 'I want people in Detroit to say, 'I went to the game lastnight.' I think we've done that. For a while people were afraid to even admitthey went to a game."

On the same daythat he fired manager Alan Trammell last October, Detroit general manager DaveDombrowski called Leyland, who had teamed with Dombrowski in Florida to leadthe Marlins to the 1997 world championship. Leyland had spent 2000 to '05scouting for St. Louis and advising one of his best friends in baseball,Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Leyland credited the smooth, successfuloperations of the Cardinals with reigniting his passion to manage."Everyone I talked to that winter," Leyland says, "told me theTigers had good players, but they were not a good team. They had someexpectations [last year] and didn't live up to them early, and then things kindof went to hell. That's why I've never been big on setting goals."

Leyland is thepaterfamilias manager, with an abiding belief that a team is no different thana family, and he asserted his principles quickly. A week into the exhibitionseason, he lit into his team after a trouncing of the Yankees. "Guys hadbeen high-fiving each other and yukking it up in the dugout," Jones says."He called us together and told us it was time to be professional, to treatthe other team with respect."

According topopular legend, Leyland turned the corner on changing the clubhouse culturelast April 17, after a 10--2 loss to the Cleveland Indians. In a postgamemeeting with reporters he lambasted his team for giving a lazy, unfocusedeffort; the Tigers promptly won 12 of their next 15 games. In truth, though,his signature moment had occurred days earlier after one of his players, whomhe declines to name, showed up Lamont for holding him at third base instead ofsending him home. An angry Leyland called a closed-door meeting after the gameand singled out the player. "If you ever do anything like that again, oranybody else," he told the team, "I'll quit. Because I don't wantanything to do with that kind of horses---."

Says hitting coachDon Slaught, "That was the day they got it. He told them, 'It's my team.'It's Jim Leyland's team. It's not a star player's team. It's his team."

Long ago Leylandlearned that a manager must act on his instincts. The worst feeling, he says,is to look back at a game or a moment in the clubhouse and say, "I knew Ishould've listened to my gut and done something." No one, says Slaught, hasa better knack for saying the right thing at the right time. A former catcherfor Leyland in Pittsburgh, Slaught recalls a game in the early 1990s in whichreserve outfielder Gary Varsho went hitless and committed an error in a rarestart. Varsho was worried about being sent to the minors. Leyland waited untilthe next day to ask him in front of the team, "Varsho, do you wearcontacts?"

"Yes," hereplied.

"Well, thenext time I put you in there, wear them."

The team, Varshoincluded, cracked up. "With one line," says Slaught, "he toldVarsho he wasn't going anywhere, that he was going to be playing again and thathe was one of the guys."

Before the secondgame of the ALCS, Leyland saw Gomez in the lobby of the Tigers' hotel and,moved by nothing more than his gut, told Gomez he would be the DH for thatevening's 5:15 game. Renowned among the Tigers for his prodigious battingpractice home runs, Gomez had only one career homer--or 25 fewer than MarcusThames, the player he would be replacing, had this season.

"You knowwhy?" said Leyland to Gomez of his decision to play him. "You're agreat five o'clock hitter."

Naturally, Gomezwhacked a homer that night and drove in four in Detroit's 8--5 win.

Leyland'saggressive style plays well in the urgency of the postseason. In Game 1 of theALCS, with the Tigers leading the A's 3--0, he visited lefthander NateRobertson on the mound with runners on second and third and no outs in thefourth. "Don't worry about these runners," Leyland said. "I don'tcare if they score, but focus on not letting any more on base." Robertsonwhiffed the next three hitters with the hardest fastballs he threw all night."What the skipper does is reinforce every day what we're capable of,"Robertson says. "And we believe it."

Before every homegame Leyland gathers his team in a conference room down the hall from theclubhouse. This being baseball, and Leyland being one of its typical devoteesof superstition, everybody sits in the same seats. Leyland always has a messagethat finds room for humor. "I had all these people calling my cellphoneasking me why Gomez didn't play [in Game 3]," he said before Game 4."And then I checked the caller ID for the names and you know what? 'Gomez,Gomez, Gomez, Gomez....' How big is your family, Gomez?"

Now, one win fromthe World Series, it was time to address the players as a proud father."You guys," Leyland said, "are now a great team." It was theultimate compliment from Leyland, and the Tigers rewarded his belief by playinglike champions for one more day in October.

WORLD SERIES PREVIEW

Predictions and position-by-position breakdown of theFall Classic at SI.com/baseball.

Leyland reaffirmed the worth and influence of ahands-on manager.
In no other city could the 102nd World Series be moremeaningful.
PHOTOAl TielemansLONG GOODBYE Ordonez's ALCS-ending jack last Saturday (ball is between the light banks) was only the eighth walk-off homer to end a postseason series.PHOTOBRAD MANGINMISS AND HIT Placido Polanco lost six weeks to a shoulder injury, then gained the ALCS MVP by batting .529 against the A's.PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (LEYLAND)PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHHOT STUFF Justin Verlander and Kenny Rogers (below) helped hold Oakland to nine runs and a .161 average with runners on.PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (ROGERS)[See caption above.]