Of all the no-brainer moves in sports, signing manager Jim Leyland to an extension tops the list. This was as easy as letting water run down a drain. As simple as picking vanilla at a Häagen-Dazs store.
Leyland, from all accounts, made the decision even easier. On Monday, the day after the Tigers’ season ended, he sat in a room with president/general manager Dave Dombrowski – no lawyer, no agent – and said he only wanted one more year on his deal, which was due to expire after next season.
How about that? No posturing. No asking for six seasons when you’ll settle for four. No comparing numbers with the biggest manager’s contract in baseball and demanding one dollar more. Leyland’s deal was up next year, and now it’s up one year later.
“Two years is perfect,” he told me when I reached him via phone as he was about to tee off on a golf course Tuesday. “Hopefully next year at this time, I’ll extend for another year, and we can keep doing it that way.”
But why not try for a long-term deal? More money? More security?
“I just didn’t want to do that,” he said. “I went through that once before, and when I left, I saddled the team with my coaches. I didn’t think that was fair.”
If only all sports deals were this easy.
The baseball man of the hour
Or, for that matter, this obvious. Leyland, 62, is as right a man at as right a time as Abe Lincoln in the White House or Clark Kent in a phone booth. He took over a team that was drowning in misdirection and led it to the World Series in his first year. He kept the Tigers’ heads from getting big the following year and was in the hunt down to the final days – despite injuries that took shark-sized bites out of the lineup.
More than that, you never hear a negative word about Leyland in the clubhouse. No second-guessing. He is the boss – even when they don’t like his decisions.
I remember talking to Zach Miner in August just minutes after Leyland told him he was going down to Triple-A Toledo. Miner was red-faced and near tears. He hated it. But he never blasted Leyland. Maybe because, down the hall, Leyland was telling people that if he were Miner, he’d be furious, too.
It’s that no-nonsense, call-a-stinker-a-stinker honesty that is gold bullion in a baseball clubhouse – and perfect for this club. Different managers for different situations. An expansion team needs a teacher. A championship team needs a babysitter. A team in New York needs a thick-skinned optimist.
Here in Detroit, first the team needed experience – Alan Trammell had none before he was made manager – then it needed a whip crack, then it needed a high level of expectations.
Leyland brings all of that. He expects good play and good behavior – and he’ll tell you if it’s absent. He’s not running a circus, and he’s not running a corporation. He’s running a baseball team. And with him on the bench, on the field or in his office, you always feel a good baseball man is in charge.
The raging fire within
On top of that, Leyland, despite his gruff voice, cowboy white mustache and cloud of cigarette smoke, is pretty in tune with his inner self. Remember, he quit managing eight years ago when he felt he was burned out.
Last week, he said: “I’m a wild man again, so that’s good, that’s a good sign. And I know that I’m into it ’cause I’ve put out all the little fires you need to put out as a manager. I’m proud of that – I guess that sounds like you’re bragging – but I’m proud of that just because … that’s the only way you can do this job.”
On Tuesday, he added: “I will never manage the Tigers for any amount of money if the fire is not there. … I’m not gonna go through the motions to get a paycheck.”
So let’s see. A guy who wins, a guy who’s admired, a guy who only wants a year more at a time, and a guy who’ll tell you first if he’s not doing a good job? How long should it take to sign him to an extension?
About as long as it did.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).