Leyland: 'A real treat' to manage Tigers
Skipper can't overstate the quality of human beings on his club
LAKELAND, Fla. -- When Jim Leyland says that it is "a real treat" to manage the Detroit Tigers, many people might automatically believe that he is referring to the Tigers' new-and-improved lineup.
That isn't it. Leyland's use of the term "a real treat" is not a reference to the hitters on his team, but to the human beings on his team.
"We've got really good guys, I'm serious about that," Leyland said, more than once, on Tuesday, as he held forth about the intangible qualities of his team.
The focus for the rest of the world has been on the Detroit hitters. The Tigers already had an imposing lineup, but this offseason they added a run producer of the first rank in Miguel Cabrera, not to mention veterans Edgar Renteria and Jacque Jones. For Leyland, the focus on this topic is understandable, but risks being overstated.
"There's a lot of people talking about us, and we're going to get baited every day with questions about the 'Murderers' Row' lineup," Leyland said. "We don't have a 'Murderers' Row' lineup. We've got a nice lineup. You've got to be careful not to fall for all the stuff that's going on. Expectations are high and it's a real dangerous year, because you could fall into an excuse trap if you're not careful."
If this lineup performs up to expectations, it might be a real treat managing it. But the real treat for Leyland is managing one aspect of his club that is immune from slumps and streaks -- its character.
"You always live and die as a manager with the cooperation of your veteran guys," Leyland said. "If your veteran players buy into the program -- which is basically their program, it's not mine -- then you usually have a good chance of being successful. If you get the veteran guys to buy into the program, you've done a lot. Our guys have been absolutely fantastic, absolutely tremendous. Carlos Guillen, Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio [Ordonez], [Placido] Polanco, they've been absolutely top-shelf fantastic."
Leyland used the individual example of Guillen to illustrate his point. Guillen has long been a superior shortstop, but this spring, he is willingly, without creating a single wave, making the move to first base, to give the Tigers more run production at that position and to make room for the addition of another solid veteran shortstop, Renteria.
"I'm serious when I say this, this a real treat to manage this team," Leyland said. "Carlos Guillen is as fine a person, as fine a professional as I've ever been around. He is as good a man as I've been around. He's a team guy, is what he is."
It isn't only the veteran Tigers who Leyland sees as admirable. On the topic of the multitalented young center fielder, Curtis Granderson, the manager said:
"When you've got guys like Curtis Granderson, there isn't a manager alive who could screw them up. Nobody could mess him up. He's got it all. He's good looking, articulate, bright, hell of a player."
On the reporting day for Detroit position players, Leyland glanced around the premises and determined that he also liked his team's diversity. That would be diversity of varying sorts -- cultural, ethnic, personal.
"We've got a lot of different personalities on this team, which is good," Leyland said. "I think you see all different people from different walks of life, different cultures mixing together. I think that's very interesting. I love that kind of stuff.
"That's what baseball is, people from all over, different places, playing, and here they are in the Tigers' clubhouse all together. We've got people from everywhere, different ages, different cultures. When you make that a team, it's more rewarding, I think. To make that work from a manager's standpoint, to work together, to bring that unit together it's a nice little challenge and it's very rewarding.
"We've really got good guys. I'm serious about that. We've got different personalities; some quiet, some loud, some in between. We've got some real free spirits, we've got some very religious people, we've got some in between. I like all that. That's life. That's your neighborhood."
Leyland understands the language barrier from both sides of the street. Latin American players, Spanish speakers, coming to North America, that development is by now a day at the office. But when Leyland went to Venezuela in 1980 to manage in winter ball, suddenly he was the one without a grasp of the prevailing language, and he came to understand what all the Spanish-speaking players had gone through when they came to the States.
"We've got a lot of Spanish-speaking players on the team and I have a lot of fun with that," he says now. "They'll be talking Spanish and I kid with them, because I know they're talking about me and probably saying bad things about me. I tell them, 'Look, I don't speak it, but I understand it, so be careful.'"
Leyland is obviously one of the most respected managers in the game. In this era in particular, this job transcends even the usual and varied concerns of in-game tactics, and goes to a wide range of what are essentially people skills. An appreciation of nature of individuals who happen to be baseball players is more important than ever.
In the case of the Detroit Tigers, OK, they should have one of the best offenses in baseball. But over the six-month marathon season, more than ability, even outstanding ability, is required. The kind of character that can build and maintain a cohesive unit through thick and thin is an absolute requirement. These Tigers should be more than all right in those departments, especially if the affection and admiration they have earned from their manager is any measurement.
"I really like these guys," Leyland said. "I don't mean that things run smooth all the time. They don't agree with everything I do; I don't agree with everything they do, but that's OK. The fact of the matter is we work things out because I think there's enough respect there."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.