So long, skipper

by | Oct 22, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

He wore a suit, and when baseball managers wear a suit they’re either coming or going. Jim Leyland, suddenly, was going. He sat behind a long table with an expansive view of an empty Comerica Park in front of him, blocked only by a horde of reporters who had raced down in the rain for the hastily called Monday morning news conference.

“When it’s time it’s time,” Leyland said. “And it’s time to step down from the managerial position from the Detroit Tigers…”

Skipper says so long. After eight years and 700 Detroit victories, the tank was empty. He informed the players right after the season-ending loss in Boston on Saturday night, two victories from a World Series. He thanked them for their respect, then asked them to respect him one last time and keep it quiet until Monday, to give the Red Sox their due and not steal from their story. As he walked back to his office, he recalled, “it was like a bombshell. It was dead silence. So I came back and told them, ‘Fellas, this is Jim Leyland retiring, this is not Babe Ruth. Get a beer. Have a sandwich. Go enjoy yourself.'”

Skipper says so long. We will not see the likes of Jim Leyland again. Detroit’s best baseball managers seem to arrive with white hair and leave with less of it, and this white-haired, gravelly voiced, cigarette-fueled skipper was one of the best. In less than a decade, he became Detroit’s third winningest manager, guiding the Tigers to three straight division titles and two World Series. All told, he spent 22 seasons at the helm of one franchise or another, and in the long and storied history of baseball, only 14 managers have won more games.

He’s earned his easy chair.

“This job entails a lot more than people think,” Leyland explained. “There’s a lot more than writing out the lineup and pulling a pitcher…. I could see it coming. The trips were starting to get tough…. I’m gonna be 69 years old. I’m not ashamed of that. I’m proud of it. But the fuel’s getting a little low.”

Skipper says so long.

True to oneself

His sudden retirement – not even a rumor until a few hours before its reality – was classic Leyland. Realistic. Self-deprecating. No false modesty. And honest to a fault.

“I’m gonna miss the players,” he said. “I’m gonna miss the people we work with. … It’s just become such a tiring job now with all the travel at my age… all the media responsibilities that you have to go through, all the taking care of some players’ personal problems, trying to help them…. I’m not gonna miss some of that stressful stuff.”

Even so, most managers would never walk away from a team still willing to pay them – let alone pay them well.

Nor would they leave having just missed a championship – especially with a talent-rich roster capable of winning it all next year.

But the only thing Jim Leyland knows better than baseball is himself. He started thinking about this over the summer. Said he noticed the fatigue after road trips. A certain churning in his soul.

“They always said when it’s time you’ll know,” he recalled. Last month, around a hotel pool in Kansas City, he told his bench coach, Gene Lamont, he was done. He then asked to have a cup of coffee with Dave Dombrowski, his boss, on Sept.7. He told him that he was planning to retire, because he felt it was fair, and fairness has always defined Jim Leyland.

“This is 50 years for me in baseball,” he said. “You’re talking about a guy who hit .222 in the minor leagues and got released and thought he was gonna go back and work somewhere back home in Perrysburg, Ohio…. I mean this has been unbelievable.”

When asked about his most cherished accomplishment in Detroit, he said:

“I think the thing that I’m proudest of when it’s all said and done… I came here to make talent a team, and I think we did that.”

Notice he started with an “I” and ended with a “we.” That’s how Leyland thinks. It’s a team thing. It’s a group result – success or failure. He never, in all his time here, threw a player under the bus, blamed high-priced egos or sacrificed someone else’s reputation to protect his own. Even after the American League Championship Series elimination by Boston during which several superstars didn’t deliver (which had nothing to do with Leyland) he began his explanations by saying “I didn’t do enough.”

How strange to realize now that, while the Tigers were being bumped to the edge with an agonizing grand slam in Game 2 and another in Game 6, Leyland actually was watching his career come to a close – silently.

Skipper says so long.

Target for criticism

“He’s like the father in the clubhouse,” rightfielder Torii Hunter said Monday, “and the CEO.”

How many men are described that way? Fans rarely get to see what a manager like Leyland does. They mostly cringe when he comes to the mound, then complain that he pulled a pitcher too soon or too late. The Internet has long been full of vitriol about Leyland’s managerial decisions, and you hope he never checked such things on a computer, because sniping anger could never understand the breadth of the humanity Leyland brought to the job.

This is a man who would chew out his superstar in front of the whole team if he disrespected a coach – he did it in Pittsburgh with Barry Bonds – yet also would gather the room together and tell them, fighting tears, to go home and think about how they can be better teammates to each other, as he did the day Kirby Puckett died.

This was a modest man from modest means, the son of a glass factory worker in Perrysburg, whose family had a tradition on New Year’s Eve, detailed in an ESPN story, where the men came through the front door and presented the women a piece of bread and a piece of coal, to symbolize another year of food and heat. Leyland spoke like a workingman and a workingman he was at his core, one who never forgot his roots. He choked up, literally, when he thanked the average men and women who spent their hard-earned money to come watch the team. He apologized to those people Monday for not winning a title this year saying, “We let the American League championship get away…. I’m very sorry that we didn’t get that done for you.”

He came across to strangers as grumpy and stern, yet in truth he was remarkably open both in speech and demeanor. Also in appearance. It was not unusual to walk into Leyland’s office to see him in his underwear, legs up on the desk, his feet in socks, a cigarette dangling in his mouth.

“Hey, how’s it goin’?” he’d bellow. He wouldn’t get up. He’d just chat as if it were the most natural pose, until pretty soon, you just figured it was.

Whoever takes over that desk now will be a hot-button topic from today until another news conference at Comerica Park, likely in the same room as Monday, at the same table with the same view of an empty field. But whoever sits in that chair will not likely fill it the way Leyland did. This was a real baseball man, an old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool, came-up-through-the-minor-leagues-and-has-seen-it-all guy, who respected the game enough to keep his own news silent in deference to the team that defeated him.

His players will miss him. His bosses will miss him. The game will miss him, too.

“He deserves to retire, relax, sit on the beach nude and smoke cigarettes,” Hunter joked.

Sounds like a plan.

Skipper says so long. It isn’t often in sports that a manager can say, “Thank you for having me,” and have it be just as true the other way around.


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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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