Every New Year’s Eve, Jim Leyland’s family gathers in his childhood home and participates in a tradition. The males in the family, from grandparents down to grandkids, take a piece of bread and a piece of coal, go out the back door – “which signifies letting out the old year,” he explains – and come back in through the front. They say a prayer and then present the coal and bread to the oldest woman in the family to symbolize a year of food and warmth.
“I’ve never missed one,” says Leyland, who will turn 69 next month. And that tradition will not change. But many others will. Leyland, who led to the Tigers to the postseason more times than any other manager, stepped down last month, retiring from managing 15th on baseball’s all-time victory list.
He will be honored Monday on what Mayor Dave Bing has declared “Jim Leyland Day” in Detroit and will talk about his career and receive a special proclamation in a charity event at the Fox Theatre that evening.
Last Thursday, Leyland spent 90 minutes in a prolonged and wide-reaching phone conversation looking back on his years and memories in Detroit.
Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Now, then and in between
Mitch: Now that you’ve had a chance to think about the decision, any second thoughts on leaving?
Jim: No. I’ve had absolutely no second thoughts at all. It was time. I could see looking into the future I wasn’t gonna have the energy to do the job like it needs to be done.
M: Compare the first time you walked away from baseball, with Colorado, versus now.
J: Well, it’s really totally different. Those people in Colorado treated me wonderfully, but when I walked away then, it was more to do with that style of management. I’m a 4-3 or 3-2 type manager, and at that time out there, in Coors Field, the ball was still flying – you know, there were games 12-10, 15-12. I just realized this is not for me. I always felt like running a pitching staff was my strong suit, and in those days it was pretty hard to run a pitching staff at Coors Field. A guy could pitch a great game and give up seven runs.
M: But wasn’t there also a burnout factor you cited?
J: I think so. Yeah. You know, it was stressful after 11 years.
M: Let’s talk about that first year in Detroit, 2006. That was an amazing turnaround.
J: When I got here, I didn’t really have a relationship with any of the players. I knew it was a talented group of guys, but it wasn’t a very good team. To be honest, I had heard about some of the stuff that went on the year before, and I knew it was a rough situation.
M: How did you change it?
J: If I saw things getting out of whack, I stepped on it right away – and the guys responded very well. I think they kind of enjoyed the fact that hey, this guy mean business, you know? It was a thrill, really, to come in after they hadn’t won for 12 years and go to the World Series. I guess I’m bragging, but I thought that was pretty good.
M: By the end of that year, what were some of your relationships with the players?
J: I had a great relationship with Pudge (Rodriguez) – even though we had a couple run-ins. Pudge was very professional about it and I really respected that. And of course Magglio (OrdoÃÂ±ez) was kind of a silent, upstanding, veteran guy but really didn’t say a whole lot. (Brandon) Inge was kind of the spokesman. And Carlos Guillen was a very professional player. As a manager, if you get guys like that buying into your program, you’re home free. Because those are the guys (who set the tone) in the clubhouse.
World Series, J.V. and Game 163
M: Was going from almost worst to first the most fun part of 2006?
J: I think that was my most rewarding year. It really ignited baseball again in Detroit. The Tigers weren’t getting a lot of fans, they were on the back page, going to a game wasn’t the thing to do – and one of the things to do in Detroit now is to go to a Tiger game. And that’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my eight years in Detroit
M: What was Justin Verlander like then versus now?
J: I think he’s pretty much the same. He’s really, truly a great kid. When I first got to Detroit, in spring training, Dave Dombrowski said, “We’ll let you take the guys you want.” I said, “Well, I want him and him” – and “him and him” was Verlander and Joel Zumaya. And I remember some of the (reaction) was, “Well, they’re not ready; you don’t know what you’re gonna get with those guys.” And I remember saying, “I agree. But I do know what I’m gonna get from those other guys.”
M: So you knew how good Verlander was?
J: Back then, he was obviously a very talented kid – he was antsy, trying to make the team. He went from that to eight years later he has the Cy Young, he has an MVP. Nobody does it better than Verlander when it comes to competing. Nobody. Let’s face it. He’s got a bigger paycheck now – he’s got a lot of nicer things, success in the sports world gives you that. But it doesn’t really change the person. And I think he’s just like anybody else that goes through some different stages in their life, where things can be faddish temporarily – but Justin Verlander is as solid as it gets. He’s a good guy with a great head on his shoulders.
M: Do you look at that 2006 World Series as one that got away?
J: Well, we didn’t perform very well – there’s no question about that. We had kind of a freak World Series – pitchers had errors, we didn’t hit. And the layoff did not help – I will say that. At the same time, the Cardinals won. Give ’em credit. They beat us.
M: That home run by Magglio to put you in the World Series – was that one of those moments that will always come to mind when you think of Detroit?
J: I don’t think there’s any question. To see all those fans, all those white towels going crazy – I mean, it was unbelievable.
M: The next few years, the Tigers were competitive, but didn’t make the playoffs. Any one season particularly frustrating?
J: That one, in 2009, when we ended up playing a 163rd game against Minnesota. That was one of the greatest baseball games I’ve ever been involved in. But I thought we let that get away.
M: What moment do you remember from that game the most?
J: I remember we kind of lost the ball in the dome in leftfield. We probably would have won. I remember Brandon Inge getting hit by a pitch, which would have put us ahead in the game… and we didn’t get that call. But the thing I remember most about that game was Fernando Rodney. He took the ball – and he’d been out there like three innings – and he wasn’t coming out – and I’ll never forget him for that. You talk about a warrior.
The utterly amazing Miggy
M: The day you found out you got Miguel Cabrera – did you know what you were getting?
J: It was at the winter meetings and I think – as the story goes – that Mr. Ilitch said something to Dave about, hey, can we get that guy Cabrera? The funniest thing about that was there was no talk. No rumors. Nothing. And then it happened.
M: Was there something you had seen with Cabrera that impressed you most?
J: Well, his home run off Roger Clemens in the World Series (when Cabrera was only 20) was pretty impressive. I think it’s come to pass how special this guy is.
M: Over the years, what’s impressed you the most about him?
J: In my 50 years, there’s been nobody that has the opposite-field power that Miguel Cabrera has. Nobody.
M: Your relationship with him?
J: Well, first of all, he’s very, very smart. And he’s a very intelligent, instinctive baseball player. The neat thing about him is he plays the game more like a kid, because he knows he’s so good, it’s fun for him. Some guys labor to be good. When he goes to the park, he knows he’s gonna do good. When I was working for the Cardinals, I got to know Stan Musial, and he said, “It was a lot of fun going into the season because I knew I was gonna hit .325. I didn’t know if I was gonna hit .350. But I knew I was gonna hit .325.” It kind of reminds me about Cabrera. I mean, this guy is just remarkable.
M: Best hitter you’ve ever seen?
J: I would have to say between him and Barry Bonds. But right now, Cabrera’s the greatest hitter on the planet.
M: And your personal relationship with him?
J: Oh, it was great. We had a terrific relationship. He’s a fun guy. Truthfully, when he walks in the clubhouse, he’s such a handsome kid and a good-looking kid, and he’s got a great face – that he just lights up the clubhouse. He makes you feel good when you see him.
Perfection and puffing
M: What do you recall about the almost perfect game that Armando Galarraga threw?
J: Well, (going into the ninth inning) I was pretty much like everybody else – the old tradition in baseball, don’t say anything. I went down underneath and had my cigarette. Then he got the first two outs and you’re thinking, “He’s gonna do it.” And then you see the play (a grounder to first) you say, “My God, he did it!” And the umpire says safe, and you’re just saying, “Oh, my God.”
M: Were you angry?
J: It was such an emotional thing for me. I mean, if you’re talking about a Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer or something, it might have a chance to happen more than once – but with this kid, this was probably gonna be the only time that he was gonna put his mark, really, on baseball – as far as pitching a perfect game. That’s what bothered me so much.
M: Were you upset with umpire Jim Joyce?
J: The truth of the matter is I felt so bad for him. He’s a great umpire.
M: You mentioned going for a smoke. That was a trademark for you, despite baseball banning it from clubhouses.
J: Well, I’ll tell you, I understand that it’s not good for kids. I understand that we’re trying to set the right example. And I would never smoke in somebody’s house or offend anybody with it. But I do think smokers are discriminated against. I’ve also said that – and I’ll probably get killed politically – but I’ve also said you know what? Let’s just have a 30-day smoke-out. Nobody sell any cigarettes. Nobody buy any cigarettes. And the government will be bringing a truck to my house with Marlboros, asking me to buy ’em.
M: (Laughs.) Because of no taxes collected?
J: (Laughs.) No taxes collected, buddy.
M: Was it physically difficult for you to go without cigarettes during the game?
J: No, I would go down and sneak one in the tunnel. In between innings – a couple puffs. It became almost like a ritual for me, but I’d never smoke a full cigarette, obviously. I did – admittedly – smoke in my office. I’m not gonna lie about it. I hope I don’t get fined.
M: I don’t think they can fine you anymore. Did you enjoy those media sessions in your office?
J: To be honest with you – and a lot of people probably think I’m lying about this – I enjoyed the media, because I felt like that was the way to get information about your club off to your fans. And I actually tried to use the media. And I don’t mean in a disrespectful way. I had a lot of people come in my office over the last eight years. I really liked ’em. I didn’t necessarily like what they had to do all the time, and sometimes our jobs conflicted, but they’re good people. I thought Detroit was very fair. I was so thrilled because (when I retired) I got a call from every one of the beat writers, thanking me for the last eight years, and how saying much they enjoyed it. I felt the same way.
2012 and the World Series
M: Last year, you had such a hot team, and then a layoff and a sweep by the Giants in the Series. Do you imagine other scenarios where you could have beaten them?
J: No, I think the key to that series was this: Justin Verlander was so good, when they beat him that first game, it changed their mind-set for the Series – and it probably hurt ours. And it wasn’t anything he did wrong. He didn’t have his best game. But that just happened, and I think they swelled up a little bit.
M: How frustrating is it when you have a high-powered scoring club – like this year – that in the playoffs suddenly loses its power? Is that bad timing or better competition?
J: I think it’s a combination. When you’re scoring a lot of runs during the season, that means you usually knocked the starting pitcher out, and you’re beating up on second-line pitching that comes in early in games. But when you get to the World Series, you don’t really run into that team. That team’s at home watching. That’s part of it. I think some of it is it’s a big stage, and if you’re not swinging good, guys start pressing a little bit, and it compounds their problems. It’s happened a lot. If you look over the history of baseball, there’s been a lot of really, really good players that have not really performed so well in the World Series. Even this year, with Boston, if you look at their batting averages, they weren’t too good against us. Everybody talked about David Ortiz – Big Papi – he got the one big hit, but he only had one other hit that entire series.
The Peralta situation
M: Let me ask you about this year. The Jhonny Peralta situation. You never spoke about it. What can you say now?
J: Well, my first reaction was I was disappointed, because I love Jhonny Peralta. A great guy. A wonderful teammate. So I was kinda hurt by it. I was a little bit surprised. I did have mixed emotions. But I do believe in the system that they put in. And if you’re guilty, then you’re penalized as such. So I really had no problem with the penalty. To lose a guy like that – it hurt. Of course we were fortunate enough to get a guy like (Jose) Iglesias, but we were gonna miss a pretty big bat in the lineup. Dave Dombrowski handled that situation probably as well as anybody could handle it. He said that… you know… by baseball rules, you have to reinstate the guy. Some people were saying, ah, just forget him – don’t ever bring him back, but by rule, you have to reinstate him – then you had to make a baseball decision as to whether you wanted to keep him or not. Basically, I think Dave made a very honorable decision. He took the view that, OK, he was guilty. He was wrong. But he served his penalty – like anybody else that does something wrong. Once you serve your penalty, you’re not penalized for the rest of your life.
M: Did you have any discussions with Jhonny when it first happened?
J: I had a little, small discussion with him at the batting cage one day, and I just reassured him how much I thought of him. I said you made a mistake. You’re gonna pay for it. But it really doesn’t change how I feel about you.
M: What did he say to that?
J: He said, “I understand.” He said, “I’m sorry.” He apologized for hurting the team.
M: Did he ever tell you specifically what he did?
J: No, and I never asked him.
A skipper’s final season
M: You’ve said everybody expected you to win this year. Was it the most pressure you’ve felt since you came here?
J: Yes, I think so. I think it was tough on ’em. I thought they handled it beautifully.
M: And yet do you think the expectations wore on you as the season went on?
J: I think there’s some truth to that. I do. And I’m not ashamed to admit that. It was really a Catch-22 because we’ve set such a high bar and that means we’re doing pretty good – but then on the other side you say, geez, are we gonna be able to keep this up?
M: And it was wearing on you personally?
J: Oh, there’s no question about that. I’d like to say no, but yeah, sure it did.
M: Was there ever anything physical? A medical scare?
J: No, that’s the good thing about it. I thought people were gonna be suspicious of that. But I have no physical issues. There was no doctor visits – “I’m having chest pains” – or any stuff like that.
M: During the postseason, when Prince Fielder went into his slump, how do you decide between talking to him or not, possibly moving him down in the lineup, other options?
J: I did talk to Prince. I didn’t call him into my office and have a conversation… but there would be just little comments around the batting cage or maybe out by first base. “Hey, listen, you’re really good at what you do, just have fun, don’t put too much pressure on yourself, you’re a champion.” Stuff like that. I did that with a lot of guys. In this particular case – this year, our team – the results just weren’t good enough.
M: Do you rarely call a guy into your office?
J: I learned this a long time ago. If you call a guy into your office and shut the door, if there’s media around, it sends up a red flag. I never wanted to embarrass a player.
Communication, style and the new guy
M: At the Brad Ausmus press conference, Dave Dombrowski said several times communication in the locker room is really an important thing in today’s game. Has it changed from when you first started to now?
J: I don’t think so. I think you have to decide what you mean by “communication”? Being out there all the time – in the clubhouse – I think that’s the wrong way to do it. I think as a manager you sense when you need to communicate and when you don’t – when you need to leave ’em alone and when you don’t. If I smell we got this little issue going on – I’m gonna take care of it. But I think you need to communicate less when you set the tone and your players set the tone for the type of team you have. If I felt – which I did a few times in Detroit over my career – that my team wasn’t ready, then, hey, I had a meeting. I said, “Look, this just isn’t good enough.” But the type of team we had – they were very professional. You don’t really have to go in there and police ’em every day to make sure your communication has gotten through.
M: Were you in on the Ausmus decision at all?
M: Did they consult you before they made it?
J: No. I’ll tell you exactly how that worked. I told Dave before I left about some candidates that he had on his list and I said, “You know, Dave, I really don’t wanna know anything that I shouldn’t know.” He called me one time after I got home and we talked a little bit and I said, “You’re going about it the right way. You’re gonna be very thorough.” That was basically it. And I knew nothing about it until the day before that he hired Brad and said he’s got his manager.
M: Did you know a whole lot about Brad before that?
J: Well, I knew a lot about him as a player, ’cause I always admired him – I mean, he was a tough, hard-nosed player…. He had a nice career – caught 18 years in the big leagues.
M: What do you think of the choice?
J: I was kidding somebody the other day about that. I said, “Well, you lost a manager that didn’t have much hair – you got a manager with hair.” I said, “You lost a manager that had a high school diploma – you hired a manager that’s got a degree from Dartmouth. You lost a manager that never played a day in the big leagues, and you hired a manager that played 18 years in the big leagues. So I think you done good.”
M: Final questions. Where does Detroit rank in your career as far connection with the city?
J: I’ll never forget it. My eight years in Detroit, obviously, were my most successful years managing. I think that Pittsburgh and Detroit are probably very, very similar. We kinda rekindled the fire of baseball in Pittsburgh. We did the exact same thing in Detroit. Like I said, I think that’s the thing that I’m proudest about.
M: And when you reflect on your whole career?
J: You know, I was thinking about this the other day….When somebody talks about your career, most people are gonna talk about wins and losses, a World Series or pennants. But if somebody asked me how I would sum up my career I would say I had a unbelievable, fabulous career. Look at it. I was an AA catcher, released, could have ended up back home working in the factory. It didn’t work out that way. I got a chance to stay in the game – and I ended up managing in the big leagues 22 years. I managed some of the greatest players to ever play the game. I met five presidents. I had dinner with a president of the United States in the White House. I played golf with a president of the United States. I made money. I mean, when I look at it, I had a unbelievably fabulous career. And I’m extremely grateful.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.
The skip’s good-bye
Mitch Albom conducts a wide-ranging exit interview with retiring Jim Leyland
On Leyland Day, He will be honored at Fox charity event
Retired Tigers manager Jim Leyland will be honored on the Fox Theatre stage Monday as part of Detroit Legacies: In Black and White, hosted by Free Press columnist Mitch Albom and civil rights icon Judge Damon Keith.
The event, which will benefit several charities and launch new books for Albom and Keith, will celebrate how people of all backgrounds and races work together.
A variety of celebrities from sports, entertainment and media will take the stage to discuss their experiences in the city and read passages from Albom’s “The First Phone Call From Heaven,” to be released Tuesday, and a new biography about Keith, “Crusader For Justice,” to be released later this month.
Besides Leyland, other big names scheduled to attend are Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, comedian Tim Meadows, the Four Tops, Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, Tigers great Willie Horton, R&B musician Kem and former Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr. Kem and the Four Tops will perform, with additional music provided by local favorites Stewart Francke and Jill Jack, and several choirs.
Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. event are $40 and include a signed copy of Albom’s “First Phone” and a discounted coupon for Keith’s “Crusader.” For tickets, go to ticketmaster.com, olympiaentertainment.com, the Fox and Joe Louis Arena box offices or call 800-745-3000. Also available are $150 VIP tickets that include a backstage reception.
Proceeds from the event will benefit S.A.Y. Detroit Charities, the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights and Reading Works.
ALBOM: Leyland reflects on Ordonez’s homer and Game 163
The Jim Leyland story in a nutshell
Full name: James Richard Leyland.
Vitals: 5-feet-11, 175 pounds.
Who: Tigers manager in 2006-13.
Born: Dec.15, 1944, in Toledo.
High School: Perrysburg (Ohio).
Family: Married to Katie, father of Patrick, 22, and Kellie, 20.
As a player
Spent six seasons as a catcher in the Tigers’ organization, rising as high as Double-A Montgomery before going into coaching in his final season (1970) in Montgomery. Finished with a .222 average and four home runs in 446 games.
As a minor league manager
Stayed in the Tigers’ system, taking over Bristol in 1971. Was manager of the year in the Florida State League in 1977-1978, then won it again after taking over Triple-A Evansville in 1979. Advanced to the postseason six times and won a title three times.
As a MAJOR LEAGUE coach
Served as Tony La Russa’s third-base coach with the Chicago White Sox in 1982-85.
Hired in 1986, won three NL East titles but never made the World Series, losing the NLCS in 1990 to the Reds and in 1991-92 to the Braves. Last winning season in Pittsburgh was 1992. Signed with the Marlins after the 1996 season.
One of several free agents brought in for the team’s fourth season, and it paid off immediately: Florida won the wild card and the 1997 World Series. A fire sale followed in the off-season, and Leyland lasted just one more year, losing 108 games.
With the Rockies
His lone season with the Marlins’ expansion brethren, 1999, was short and not particularly sweet.
After spending six seasons as a scout for La Russa and the Cardinals, returned to managing. Just the third skipper to take multiple Tigers squads to the World Series after Hughie Jennings (1907-09) and Mickey Cochrane (1934-35).