Leyland’s our guy

by | Oct 21, 2012 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

There’s no crying in baseball, Tom Hanks said that, but you can get choked up. And Jim Leyland does. You see it when he credits certain hardworking players. You see it when he speaks as the son of a factory worker. You see it when he thanks the fans.

In the din of euphoria after the Tigers won the American League pennant Thursday night, Leyland battled his emotion and thanked the Comerica Park crowd.

“We’re one big happy family here,” he croaked. “I’m just glad to be part of it.”

He swallows? His eyes get moist? His gravelly voice sounds like it has being dragged through water? So what? I’ll happily take a manager who has to choke back tears over a guy who can’t seem to find any.

Jim Leyland belongs in Detroit. He should stay in Detroit. The Tigers should sign him again and again. Not only because, in seven seasons, he has steered this team to three playoff berths and two World Series, but because he is perfect fit for this city, dyed in the wool of a working man’s clothes, a former factory worker himself – a former mailman, for pete’s sake!

That’s right. Back in the 1960s, he’d go door-to-door delivering letters during the off-season. For all we know, he may have been to your house.

“I hate to admit this,” he recalled in a long interview Friday, “but one time I drove (a postal truck) out to this industrial park, I hit a patch of ice and rolled the truck over. I had to run out the back of it. Gas was leaking all over. It was so embarrassing.”

Did it go up in flames?

“No… But I think some people are still waiting for their mail.”

Oh, well. Not much longer than they have been waiting for a championship around here. It has been 28 years since Sparky Anderson managed the Bless You Boys gang to a title. Sparky shared certain Leyland attributes. The white hair. The grumbling. The one-liners. But most notably? A sense of wonder at the crazy world – and how he somehow ended up in the middle.

“Sometimes I look around the stadium and I get a tear in my eye,” Leyland said. “I wish I didn’t show it. But to see those people waving those towels? To see them so happy? I truly believe the game impacts their lives.”

Lousy catcher, but great manager

There are times when you walk in on Leyland in his office and he is just sitting there, half-undressed, with his feet up, nobody around. Few people – let alone sports people – sit alone for very long. They fidget. They find a conversation. But here is what Leyland is doing.

He is thinking.

“I guess I’m a little bit weird,” he said, “but I spend a lot of time by myself during the season. … I think about the poor guy who got up at 5:30 in the morning, he went to work, he got home, he gulped down his supper, his kids are yelling, ‘We’re going to the ballgame!’ He rushes to get to the game, he spends money with us, he rushes home to try and get some sleep so he can get up at 5:30 in the morning again.

“That’s not easy. I mean, our players work hard. But our fans work hard, too.”

Leyland is sincere about this. It’s in his DNA. He watched his father work in a factory his whole life “and never make more than $16,000 a year. But we always felt like we had everything.”

Remember, Leyland, from Perrysburg, Ohio, never hit an athlete’s jackpot. A career minor league catcher who peaked at Double-A ball (Tony La Russa recently told MLB.com, “Even I was a better player than Jim was, and I was lousy. Jim was lousier.”), Leyland had to do the slow climb through the coaching ranks. He is 67, with a birthday in December, at the top of his profession, but his life has been simmer-to-boil, not the other way around, as it is for many superstars.

As a result, it is easy for Leyland to stay connected to the average guy. “I have a passion for the working man,” he said. “My father was one of 16. My wife is one of 11. I’m one of seven. I’ve been around a lot of people who are just trying to make ends meet….

“I worked in the same factory where my dad was superintendent. I cut out windshields in GM cars. I put the glass on an air table, oiled the diamond, you take it around the pattern, then you put it on the assembly line and it goes through the furnace.”

How many managers can utter that lineup? I joked with Leyland that the factory job – and the postman position – likely still were available.

Leyland laughed. “From what I hear, I might need them.”

Unrealistic expectations?

There is no truth to that. Unless Leyland decides to ride off into the sunset – unlikely, if you ask me – he will return next year as Tigers manager. It should never have been in question. The manager with the 15th-most victories in baseball history and one of a handful to win pennants in both leagues, Leyland received a healthy dose of criticism from certain sectors this season – mostly on his lineup choices and loyalty to certain pitchers. But the echo chamber of the Internet or talk radio can make the jeering sound falsely louder than the cheering.

The fact is, the overwhelming majority of people like Jim Leyland and want him back. And what he preached all along – patience – has proven him right.

“To be honest, we were set up from the get-go this season,” he said. “We were set up from the Prince Fielder signing… and rightfully so. I can remember telling a general manager, ‘You don’t really want to be in the news so much in February; you want to be in the news in September and October.’

“But it was only natural. People said, ‘Oh, my God, Prince Fielder, the Tigers, it’s just a matter of how much they’ll win the division by. They’ll waltz through the playoffs. They’ll win the World Series.’ Well, I know all along it doesn’t happen like that, but you just have to live with it.”

Leyland steered the ship through the bumpy waters of a losing record 83 games into the season, through the seemingly endless chase of the Chicago White Sox, through the precarious perch of being three games out with 15 left.

“I believed all along – and it finally happened – that when you’re a good club, at some point you’re gonna play really good.”

Sparky couldn’t have said it better.

The waiting game

Leyland’s challenge now is to shake off the afterglow of the Yankees sweep in the American League Championship Series and keep the team sharp until Wednesday’s World Series Game 1 – in St. Louis or San Francisco. The Tigers will play against minor leaguers to retain at least the muscle memory of live action. Nothing can recreate the atmosphere.

“It’s still hard to believe,” Leyland said of the four-game elimination of New York – a series in which the Tigers never trailed, and, with the exception of Jose Valverde’s two-homer, ninth-inning meltdown in Game 1, only gave up two runs.

“I thought there were two really important games in that series,” Leyland said. “The first game, obviously, where we blew the lead, then we came back and took the game away from them. I think that stung them a little bit.

“And then I think the other game, the big emotional game, was getting the first game in Detroit. We had (Justin) Verlander going, he was gonna be pumped up, the crowd was gonna be pumped up. I was real nervous for that game…. You’re supposed to win, everybody’s excited, sometimes it doesn’t work out.

“But that one worked out perfectly.”

It’s easy to say you like Leyland now. It’s easy to say he has done a great job. But the fact is, like a tiger, he did not just paint on his stripes. The humility he showed in not crashing the players’ immediate celebration after winning Game 4? That’s always been there. The affection his players have for his leadership, and the dedication they show as a result? That’s always been there.

The shrugging perspective? The hard-earned philosophy? The stubborn instincts and honesty that lead him to say that sometimes it’s your lineup and sometimes it’s your relievers and sometimes, want to know the truth, it’s just a lucky bounce that gives you the victory? He didn’t develop that overnight.

And that lump in his throat? The now recognizable Jim Leyland choke-up?

That’s a lifetime in the making.

There’s no crying in baseball. But there’s no rule against wearing your heart on your sleeve.

“I do have an emotional side to me,” Leyland said. “I guess I’m embarrassed a little bit by it.”

Does your wife, Katie, encourage or discourage your tearing up?

“She understands,” he answered, his voice starting to choke again. “She married Jim Leyland.”

As did the Tigers and the city of Detroit seven years ago. You know what? It’s been a pretty good hitch.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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