BENAC: Leyland, Tigers were perfect match
Well, after eight years it finally happened: Jim Leyland hung up his hat as Tigers manager earlier this week. It is a bittersweet moment for Tigers fans, but isn’t too big of a shock. Leyland is a 68-year old man, who has given his life to baseball for over two-thirds of his life. It’s not shocking that a person who has worked so hard for so long wouldn’t want to take a little break.
Yes, we complained about him all the time and found many of his decisions baffling. After the third pitching change in the eighth inning, “Fire Leyland” became something of a running gag up in the office.
But on the whole, the man has done an amazing world of good for the Tigers and the city of Detroit in general. After all, he joined a Tigers club that, to put it mildly, had been incredibly subpar for a very long time and took them to the World Series in his first year.
Of course, some might argue that the Tigers weren’t subpar before The Rise of Leyland. In fact, you could make the argument that they were, in fact, terrible or a bit of a joke. The Lions of baseball, if you will.
Although I know my brother Ray always held out hope that the “D” would make another World Series run, the fact is, they hadn’t had a .500 season since 1987.
Let’s put this into perspective a bit: I was five the last time the Tigers had a winning season. By the time Leyland got them a winning season and the World Series, I was 24.
That’s a long time for a team to lose: in fact, it creates a tradition of losing that I like to call “The Lions Effect.” If a team is expected to lose and the owners, coaches and players think they will lose, they will. This is true even if a team is infused with new, fresh blood year after year.
Breaking The Lions Effect is a Herculean task and takes a huge act of pure effort, brains and guts. And perhaps a manager who was somewhat desperate to get back into the business.
Jim Leyland has a long managerial history, but he began his baseball career with the Tigers as a catcher in 1963. He labored as a minor leaguer until 1970, at which point he began coaching for the Montgomery Rebels. Leyland was a solid, but not superlative player and he left the minor leagues with a mediocre .222 batting average.
Leyland’s first managing job came with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986. It was here that Leyland found his true calling in baseball. Although he didn’t have the athletic skills to be an elite player, he understood the sport and knew how to create winning teams.
He stayed with the Pirates for 10 years and was successful enough to pick up two NL Manager of the Year awards in 1990 and 1992. He led the Pirates to the National League Championship Series three times, but was unable to get any further.
During his time in Pittsburgh, Leyland developed a bit of a reputation as a hot head. Anybody who has watched or been to a Tigers game knows that, but his temper tantrums back then were unreal: search Youtube for “Jim Leyland, Barry Bonds” to watch Leyland tell Mr. Bonds exactly what he thinks of him.
That fiery managerial style is a big part of what pulled the Tigers out of their tailspin. Leyland had a huge passion for baseball and for winning, and wouldn’t accept failure. Although he had mellowed a bit with age, that passion was still evident during his eight years with the Tigers.
After leaving the Pirates, Leyland found a home with the Florida Marlins in 1997 and actually helped them win a World Series. The Marlins had only been in existence five years, making them the quickest expansion team, at the time, to win a World Series.
After leaving the Marlins during a “fire sale,” Leyland managed the Colorado Rockies in a fairly disastrous 1999 season. The team went 72-90 and Leyland resigned at the end of the season. It was his last managing job till 2006, when he returned to the town and team where he started his career.
This was by no means an obvious move for Leyland. He had previously attempted to get his old job back with the Pirates, but was turned down. His rocky Colorado season (pun intended) had thrown his reputation into a shambles and many thought Detroit was taking a real risk by hiring him.
Of course, that risk paid off. Leyland helped bring the Tigers three AL Central Division titles and two (unsuccessful) trips to the World Series, one of the most elite pitching squads in baseball and a Triple Crown winner in Miguel Cabrera.
Under Leyland’s steady hand, the Tigers moved from the perpetual laughing stock of the league (aka the Lions of baseball) to become one of its most respected and feared franchises.
Of course, you can’t pin point one specific man as the cause of all of these changes. Dave Dombrowski’s clever trades had a lot to do with the success of the Tigers as did Mike Ilitch’s willingness to spend big money to rebuild his team.
And that says nothing of all the players that played the game. After all, Leyland didn’t throw those pitches or hit those balls.
However, I truly believe that he epitomized the new Tigers elite status more than any single person. He maintained his calm in tough situations. He threw temper tantrums when necessary and didn’t hold back words when his team screwed up.
He showed passion and integrity in a sport that is becoming plagued by controversy. He loved his team and his players and stood up for them, showing loyalty that could at times be baffling such as bringing back Jose Valverde earlier this season.
Sometimes, he would over manage and bring in too many pitchers at the end of the game. I understand not trusting Phil Coke with more than one batter, but Drew Smyly should be able to throw more than three pitches in a game without his arm falling off.
Leyland was at his best when he would let his carefully constructed facade crumble a bit. Yes, he would grumble and mumble about winning a game, almost like he was ashamed that his team was successful. That was all part of his “tough guy” manager personality.
But then he would break down into tears after winning the ALDS and break out into the worst moonwalk you’ve ever seen in your life while his team showered him with champagne.
Although Leyland never brought the Tigers that coveted World Series title, he helped bring the team closer than they had been since the halycon days of 1984. Hopefully they can stay on the course he helped lay and find a way to get back to the Big Game.
P.S. Sorry for all the Lions jokes. I couldn’t resist. If I makes you feel any better, I’ll admit that the Lions seem to be coming closer than ever to shedding their own dreaded “Lion Effect.” Only time will tell.
Eric Benac can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5690. Follow Eric on Twitter @EricBenac.