HE MADE THEM BELIEVE

When the phone call came, he was driving to a local mall because he needed “some new corduroys.” He has a big weekend on tap – a football game, a dinner in his hometown – and “I don’t have too many good clothes.”

Ladies and gentlemen, this is your American League Manager of the Year: Jim Leyland. He didn’t fly in for a press conference. He didn’t race off to some network TV show. After the mall run for corduroys – corduroys? – he went home and celebrated quietly, with his family. When I called, he came to the phone without a screener, without an agent in between.

The low-profile guy who forged a high-profile team just won the biggest award in his profession – only the third manager to ever win the honor in both leagues – yet you could try a thousand ways to stick him with the credit, and all he wanted to do was whack it away.

“This,” he said, “is for the city of Detroit and all the fans.”

Yes, but you won the award.

“The most important thing is that we got people in Detroit back in the seats.”

Yes, but you won the award.

“The best part was how many Tigers hats and shirts we saw in the stands at the end of the season.”

Yes, but you won – ah, never mind. If Leyland has a gloat gland, it isn’t secreting. Remember, this is a guy who could snicker if he wanted to snicker. When he was hired last year, many wondered whether after six years all but out of baseball, he still had the chops to do the job.

Well, here’s how those chops held up: He took a team in search of a winning season and gave it a 95-67 record. He took a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in 19 years into the playoffs. He took a team that hadn’t been to the World Series in 22 years into the World Series. Chop, chop.

Kirby remembered

“What was the one thing you think you did most right?” I asked Leyland.

“Well, I’m not gonna take credit for much,” he said. “But I will say this: I believe if I did one thing right, I almost forced these players to believe how good they were. … I instilled the confidence in them that in the past they tiptoed, and now they were ready to crash the door down.”

How did you do that?

“Well, I told them in spring training this is not Jim Leyland’s way, it’s what I believe is the right way. … There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about your business. …

“And then there was a day – I get a little emotional talking about this – but there was day in spring training when we all mourned the death of Kirby Puckett. And I talked to the team the next morning about it. I said, ‘You know the one thing that he’ll always have and that you’ll hope that you always have is not an MVP award, it’s not a World Series ring, it’s that everybody who spoke about Kirby Puckett said he was a great teammate.

” ‘All the awards, all your salary, all the money you’ll make, the most satisfying thing you’ll have when you sit back when you’re 70 years old is that they said you were a good teammate. …’ “

That says a lot about Leyland’s style. Because the White Wizard thought of himself all season as a teammate. Not that he was buddy-buddy with everyone. Come on. He’s 61. He’d need a road map to understand Justin Verlander’s computer.

But Leyland looked at himself as part of the whole. His job. Their jobs. All part of this big picture. In it together.

Their job was to get it done on the field.

And his job as to make sure they believed that they could.

A magical season

There was an incident early in the season that got a lot of ink. The Tigers lost a 10-2 game to the Indians on what they call a “getaway day” (when the team catches a plane for a trip). Afterward, Leyland ripped into his players so loudly, it could be heard (according to reporters) from outside the clubhouse. He lambasted their effort and their attitude, and he snapped to the press, “It’s been going on here before and … it’s not going to go on here.”

The Tigers seemed to respond to that tongue-lashing. They streaked to the best record in baseball, and they held it for much of the season.

On Wednesday, I asked Leyland if that incident really was a turning point.

“It was, but I’m not sure people understood what happened there. I think everybody thought that I chewed them out because they dogged it. That wasn’t the case. I chewed them out because they gave in. They thought they were beat. They said to themselves, ‘Let’s go onto the next one.’ That just wasn’t gonna fly to me.

“It wasn’t that someone didn’t run out a ball. … It was the psychological part.”

And that’s what Leyland changed more than anything. He established a culture where the local team expected to win. That is not only remarkable, it’s damn tough. The Lions, for example, have been trying to do it for decades.

Leyland did it in a season. It was a season fans will never forget, a season that fell just short of a championship ring.

No matter. What is done is done. What happened, happened. And while a World Series was lost, a franchise was rediscovered, a fan base was rekindled, and a sport was reinvigorated in a city that had gone to sleep.

When you change a base metal into gold, it is called alchemy. And the person who does it is called an alchemist. Jim Leyland certainly turned lead into gold this season, he played the alchemist, and he earned this award. His nickname is the White Wizard, and this weekend, at some point, the wizard should toast himself for a job well done.

In his corduroy robe.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign copies of his best-seller, “For One More Day,” at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Barnes & Noble, 500 S. Main, Royal Oak.

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