Leyland leaves a mixed legacy in Detroit

Jim Leyland worked well with young players and veterans during his tenure as manager of the Detroit Tigers.

Jim Leyland worked well with young players and veterans during his tenure as manager of the Detroit Tigers.

The 2014 Detroit Tigers will have a new face in the manager’s office. Gone will be the line-worn, tanned, cigarette-smoking, craggy puss of one James Richard Leyland, son of a factory foreman. In his place will be … TBD.

Will it be odd to see someone else making the pitching changes, someone else barking at an umpire over a disputed call, someone else chomping on his post-game meal while conducting interviews with the press? Yes, it will. But the game goes on.

For many, Leyland is the wise old owl who flew into town and changed the fortunes of the ballclub. Since he was small, looked older than he was, and at times said puzzling things to the reporters, Leyland was compared to Sparky Anderson. But he was never Sparky, in fact he was quite different from the white-haired skipper who led the Bengals for 16 1/2 seasons. For most fans too young to recall the ’68 Champions, Sparky was the only real manager they remembered, the guy they grew up on. After an interval where the team employed a series of mostly forgettable managers, Leyland arrived with a pedigree and he seemed to be as close to Sparky as we could get.

In 2006 he seemed like a wizard, guiding a young team to the playoffs, navigating much of the season with baseball’s best record. The Tigers were in the postseason just three years removed from an abysmal 119 losses, and after an unexpected defeat of the Yankees in round one, they steamrolled the Athletics and vaulted into the World Series on the strength of Magglio Ordonez’s walkoff home run. Their manager never flinched – he insisted the Tigers belonged there.

Jim Leyland was a savior.

But the Leyland Legacy is more complicated than that. It usually is when you’re talking about managers or coaches or professional sports teams. The longer they stay, the more enemies they accumulate. The more familiar we become with them, the easier it is to be annoyed by them. The more years they assume the burden of leadership, the more jaded and tired they get. You think Presidents age in office? Have you seen the before-and-afters of big league managers who last more than two contract extensions in the big boy chair? And though Leyland already looked like he was 70 when he came into Motown, he looked 85 when he finally called it quits. Losses pile up until they weigh a man down.

Managing in the modern playoff era, with three rounds in the postseason and smaller divisions, Leyland has had more chances to advance to October baseball than the other long-running Tiger managers. Any discussion of managerial greatness in the Old English D begins with the sainted trio of Sparky, Mickey (Cochrane), and Hughey (Jennings). Smoky never reached their heights – he didn’t stick around long enough and he never won a ring – but he’s right there just below the Big Three.

Leyland hinted during his exit press conference that he would regret losing to the Red Sox this October and that it would probably bother him for a long, long time. It should haunt him. I think he’s smart enough to recognize that he flubbed a great chance to bury the Sawx in a 2-0 hole in Beantown in Game Two. Call it a choke job, call it overmanaging, call it the game passing him buy, whatever you want, but Leyland let that one get away, and like it or not, it will be a closing note on an otherwise solid stretch in Detroit.

Probably the biggest reason that many fans connected so well with Leyland is his honest-to-goodness emotion. This is the guy who cried when his star pitcher threw a no-hitter. Who shed tears when his great batting star won the triple crown, who hugged and squeezed Ordonez after he belted the pennant-winning dinger in ’06. Leyland blubbered his way through a speech on the infield at Comerica Park when his team won the ’12 pennant. Put him and John Boehner in a room with a DVD stuffed with sad movies and see who goes through the most boxes of Kleenex. My money’s on Jim.

After a while most fans will forget that Smoky never won the big one. His legacy will be that he turned the franchise around, helping them shed the loser label that cloaked them for a decade starting in the mid-1990s. But, Leyland will never get a statue at the ballpark, never see his #10 retired. If the current batch of Tabbies go on to win a title (as they should), Leyland’s importance will dim even more. Twenty, 35, 50 years from now it’ll be that future championship team that will stand out as the hallmark of this era, with some other (younger) man in the role of manager. Leyland will seem like a bridge to better times.

But Jim Leyland left a mark on Detroit, and he improved things around here. His shadow will be large for at least a while, and he’ll forever be a Tiger.

10 replies on “Leyland leaves a mixed legacy in Detroit

  • John Culver

    Right on the mark. Hope you’re right about an impending championship–that’s why so many are so disappointed now.

  • Robert Clark

    Oddly I don’t really blame him for the game 2 debacle. The real blame there goes to the front office for wasting a year without a true closer. Leyland was a good clubhouse manager but an indifferent field manager. He was often too passive, especially offensively, and made adjustments far too slowly. This made him too predictable and he was often out-managed. He was the exact opposite of Billy Martin who was the best field manager and tactician I ever saw, but a real ogre in the clubhouse who alienated his players. Sparky was definitely the best overall manager the Tigers have had since I’ve been following them (1970) but Leyland certainly was the nicest human being.

  • Bob Henige

    Nice job, Dan. Wish he could have won the WS, but that’s life. Tigers averaged 100+ losses in the 5 seasons prior to Jim coming here. People forget how bad this franchise was when he came on board.

  • Mark Herrington

    He will always be a Tiger in my book. One of the all time greats. I love him he cares. I have been a Tigers fan since about 1978

  • Jeff

    All the loosing teams before Jim Leyland there was no star players. When Leyland came the teams he managed had many star players. Detroit won because of that.

  • Tom Mastersen

    Yes, true, the Tigers did lose a lot for the years just prior to Leyland coming to Detroit. BUT, it’s PLAYERS who win games. Give Trammell Verlander, Scherzer, Cabrera, etc. and he wins a lot of games too.

    What did the Yankees do after Torre left? They continued to get to the postseason, and won a World Series title with Joe Girardi managing them. Managers are overrated. They can help set a tone, and they can mess things up. That’s about it. They don’t win games, but they can lose games if they mess with too much stuff. Leyland messed with the bullpen way too much, especially this postseason. He cost the team Game Two in Boston. Period.

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