WIN ONE FOR THE SKIPPER

As his team danced around the field in raucous celebration, Jim Leyland found his wife and kids and kissed them through a backstop. Then a fan raced forward and puckered up and Leyland hesitated, embarrassed, and then – why not? – he kissed the fan’s cap. Champagne was spraying and flashbulbs were exploding and the stadium was thundering noise and suddenly Leyland was on the shoulders of his players, carried off like a sultan, the kind of ride you never forget.

A year earlier, he made a different ride. A car ride, alone, from Pittsburgh to Detroit. He was taking a new job, managing a team that had become a sad, pathetic story, a real head-shaker, the kind of story that in some ways the craggy, white-haired Leyland had become. After flaming out in Colorado, he had not seen a dugout in six years. It took that long for the frayed edges of his charred wiring to heal. Iam no longer a burnout, Leyland told himself. He told his new employers, too. I have the fire again. If you believe me, hire me. If not, don’t.

They hired him, and he lead-footed to Detroit like a man afraid they might change their mind. In his news conference, Leyland, who can put himself down in a league with Rodney Dangerfield, tried to be painfully honest. He said he was “rusty.” He said he needed to “sharpen up on the game.” Asked about the roster, he said:

“I know very little about your ballclub.”

Huh? A manager doesn’t know the players? Isn’t that like a pilot who doesn’t know the plane? A CEO who doesn’t know the product line?

“I made an ass of myself in that press conference,” Leyland said Saturday night, recalling the moment. “What I meant was I didn’t know what made the players tick. I knew who they were. I’d seen them play some … but you have to find out what makes each guy tick, and I didn’t know anything about that.”

He does now. He knows their ticks and their tocks. He knows their talents. He knows their hearts. We are witnessing something rare in sports, here, folks. In one season, Leyland, 61, has so ingratiated himself to his players that they are actually trying to win this thing for him as well as themselves.

This is Mike Illitch’s payroll. This is Dave Dombrowski’s roster.

But this is Jim Leyland’s team.

Speaking up for the boss

“Leyland’s the best,” Jeremy Bonderman told the media in the aftermath of the clincher against the Yankees. This from the pitcher who was the story of the night – who shut down the best offense in baseball? And he was crediting the manager?

Yep, and he’s not alone. Player after player spoke about Leyland’s influence, his leadership, his wisdom, his confidence. It is not uncommon to hear Tigers players say, “Skip is the reason we’re here.”

But it is uncommon.

Think about it. Players today play largely for themselves, sometimes for their teammates, but almost never for the coach or manager. Oh, sure, if they win a championship, they might douse the guy with Gatorade or throw him a compliment in a news conference. But to really play for him? To go through a wall for him? To respect his decisions when he takes the ball away from them, or platoons them, or benches them? Where do you see that in sports anymore? Maybe college? Maybe?

You didn’t see it in recent Detroit championships. When the Pistons won their latest title, they didn’t do it for Larry Brown – they may have done it despite him. When the Red Wings won their Stanley Cups, they certainly gave credit to Scotty Bowman, but he scared them more than inspired them.

Loving your manager, hoisting him on your shoulders – well, you don’t see that in the professional ranks very often. But you’re seeing it here. And it’s happening to a guy who deserves every bump in that elevated ride, a guy who is loyal to his old friends and family first, a guy who is so non-nonsense, it’s fun to see him in nonsense, a guy who is hard on himself, hard on his team, but soft enough to choke up and drop a few tears when he thinks about what his players have done in this one year under his tutelage.

“It wasn’t really until the winter caravan that I could look them in the eye and pretty much tell you the ones who believed in themselves and the ones who doubted themselves …” he recalled. “When we got to spring training, I had a pretty good idea of who was tentative and who was aggressive and … who we had to have a change in the mind-set for. Not that I’m that smart, but when you’ve been around players as much as I’ve been around them, you get a pretty good idea.”

Ninety-five victories? Best ERA in baseball? Knocked off the Yankees in four games?

Yeah. Pretty good idea.

Doing things the right way

Most baseball people, seeing Leyland on Saturday night, have been saying things like “it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.” Which is a cliché, of course. But it’s not “we wish him all the best.” When they say “it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” that’s a cliché you have to earn.

Leyland has earned it the hard way, by tasting success, then tasting failure, then tasting a life with only minimal contact with the game he loved. One reason people celebrate Leyland so much is because he’s a redemption story. In his time away from the dugout, Leyland learned to appreciate things. Family. Time to think. He also learned to appreciate what he got out of the game – and what the game gave him back. You wonder what went wrong in Colorado that led to his departure – leaving $4 million on the table. He apologizes for his time there now and says, “I stunk.”

But whatever it was, it is out of his system now. I have spent much of my life going in and out of coaches’ offices and locker rooms. I can tell you that when you enter Leyland’s office – a plain and simple place, no trophies, no celebratory magazine posters of himself, no shrines to his accomplishments – you enter a no-nonsense room dusted in honest emotion. Although he tries to keep that baritone voice at an even keel, after a loss, you can feel a whiff of his heartbreak. After a victory, you can feel a whiff of his pride.

He told a story Saturday night about getting on a team bus in New York last week and finding his customary front seat taken. So he found a seat in the middle of the bus, and then Marilyn Monroe, Craig Monroe’s mother, sat down next to him and told him he was “old school” and that he “scared these guys.”

“No, I don’t scare anybody,” he said. “No,” she insisted, “you’re old school and you tell ’em the way it is.”

That was baseball’s version of a parent-teacher conference.

And that is what this crazy season has been about. Leyland has been a fatherly (some would say grandfatherly) influence on many of the young Tigers. Alan Trammell, who preceded him, was still too close to his playing years and maybe too close to the franchise to drop a hammer when he needed. But Leyland doesn’t tell players how he used to do it. He tells them how they have to do it. And they are just young enough, hungry enough and inspired enough to follow him through a wall – or carry him through it on their shoulders.

“I think they were carrying me off to get rid of me,” he joked. But it was a great ride, and it continues tonight, in Oakland, were the uniforms will be champagne-free, the expressions will be serious, and the scowl will return beneath the white mustache of Jim Leyland’s wizened face.

But that scowl cannot fool us. Not anymore. We have seen the man kiss a fan’s cap, seen him swig champagne, seen him hug guys such as Pudge Rodriguez without saying a word because words couldn’t say any more than the embrace. We have seen the man happy, and so have his players, and it is a sight they want to fight to see again. How many skippers can say that? Not many at all.

SIDEBARS

DETROIT’S MOST BELOVED COACH?

Jim Leyland has a shot to become the fifth Detroit coach to win a pro sports title since 1989. And he might be the most beloved of the lot.

Bill Laimbeer: Shock titles in ’03 and ’06. Carries rep as whiner from playing days to the coaching box.

Larry Brown: Pistons title in 2004. The drama was always about Larry, not his stars.

Scotty Bowman: Red Wings titles in ’97, ’98, ’02. He intimidated players more than inspired them.

Chuck Daly: Pistons titles in 1989 and 1990. Acclaimed as the master of leaving his players alone.

THE JIM LEYLAND FILE

Born: Toledo, grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio.

Player: Spent parts of seven seasons as a minor-league catcher for the Tigers.

Manager: Spent 11 seasons in minors with the Tigers. Tony LaRussa’s third-base coach with White Sox for four years. Hired by Pittsburgh in 1986.

Awards: Manager of the year twice in National League, three times in the minors. Won World Series with Florida in 1997.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.

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