QUICK CHANGE

Jim Leyland may have issues. Honesty isn’t one of them.

In a news conference Tuesday that was as bizarre as it was refreshing, Leyland managed to tell reporters “I know very little about your ball club” and “I don’t really know about the American League” and “I’m rusty” and, at his last job, “I stunk.”

Hmm. Was it the Tigers who hired this guy or President Bush?

I can’t recall the last time a new manager had 30 minutes of media time and used it to 1) fess up to burnout, 2) admit his need to “sharpen up on the game,” and 3) barely mention a single member of his new squad.

I’m not kidding. Hardly a throwaway “Pudge” or “Magglio.” Leyland is either inordinately modest or he was in such a hurry to get back into managing, he forgot to ask a fundamental question: “Which team is this again?”

Let’s hope it was the former. For indeed, this was a rush job. Alan Trammell’s seat was still warm when Leyland, who has been out of managing since 1999, was given the keys to the office. And the man who sent the former packing Monday was the same man smiling broadest Tuesday:

Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ president and general manager.

Congratulations, Dave.

You just stepped into the firing range.

Make no mistake. Leyland, an affable guy who went toastal six years ago in Colorado, just got a three-year contract, but Dombrowski is the man on the clock. This was his hire. This was his friend. This was his former co-worker.

This is Dombrowski’s guy, and the president’s tenure now will be judged on how well the man with the white-mustache can turn things around.

Once he, you know, gets warmed up. Winning big and losing big

“Why so fast?” I asked Dombrowski after the news conference at Comerica Park.

“I felt someone else would hire him if we didn’t,” he said.

That may be true. Or it may not be. But Dombrowski would brook little dissent at the news conference, even when asked about the clearly perfunctory interviews of Juan Samuel and Bruce Fields to satisfy the commissioner’s minority candidate interview process.

“I like Jim Leyland myself,” he said. “… I like Jim Leyland as manager.”

Now it’s up to the rest of us – and the players, who presumably will introduce themselves sometime before Leyland fills out a batting order.

In fairness, I asked Dombrowski about Leyland’s omission of players’ names during his question-and-answer period and he laughed. “He knows the players through and through. He was just showing them respect. He didn’t want to single anyone out. Trust me. He knows the guys in Toledo!”

Let’s just hope he doesn’t think he’s, you know, in Toledo. After all, this is a guy who drove to Detroit for his interview (“I hopped in the car”) and makes no secret of his fondness for living near his home in Pittsburgh. I’m all for hometowns, but commuting between states is not the best way to approach a major league job, especially with the price of gas.

But why be negative? For one thing, baseball people who know Leyland say that when he’s on his game, he’s got a good game. He won a World Series with the 1997 Marlins, thanks, in part, to an owner who would buy anybody and everybody. Then that same owner got rid of everybody and anybody and Leyland’s follow-up team lost 108 games.

He left Florida, went to Colorado, and spent one year there before quitting, leaving two years and $4 million on the table.

“I did a lousy job,” he said. “I stunk. I stunk because I was burned out.”

I’ll tell you what. If the Tigers don’t work, he’d be a great fit with the Lions. Is he the next Scotty?

But as we said, why be negative? I like Leyland. And I give him credit for recognizing that the current Tigers “could probably care less” about hearing from him right now. “They’re wounded,” he said. “They lost somebody they were very fond of. They’re beat-up. … The last thing they want to do is hear from the new manager.”

Also, I believe most of them changed their numbers.

Besides, Tuesday was about regime change. The Tigers did the thing they do the best, hold a news conference to announce a hiring, and Mike Ilitch, the Tigers’ owner, did what he does best, reference the Red Wings.

“I remember when we hired Scotty Bowman,” he said. “One guy can make all the difference.”

I’m not sure Jim Leyland is Scotty Bowman. Bowman won everywhere with everything. Leyland won once with a great roster. Bowman could never burn out, because he has a microprocessor for a brain. Leyland, 60 years old, took the last six years to return to the pressure cooker of the dugout.

But, hey, if he’s as good as Dombrowski says -“when you talk about people like Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox, that’s the category that Jim Leyland is in”- then it was a heck of a move. He does have the one thing Trammel didn’t have: managerial championship experience.

And the white hair that Tigers fans so love in managers.

But in the end, it’s still about the talent. It always will be. And while Leyland rattled off a good deal of “manager-speak” truisms – they have to be on time, they have to play the right way, they have to be team players – it won’t mean a thing unless he convinces his players.

Once he meets them.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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