Bodley: Leyland not hung up on last year
Saddened by loss of Polanco, but looking forward to '10
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Nobody would have blamed Jim Leyland had he gone home in October, bolted the doors and put up the "Do Not Disturb" sign.
With 26 games to go, his Detroit Tigers blew a seven-game American League Central lead and after ending the season in a tie, lost to Minnesota in a memorable one-game tiebreaker.
Leyland quickly turned the page on the heart-breaking 6-5, 12-inning loss. In fact, he did it fairly quickly.
I said something about the jarring setback being a nightmare and a disaster. Jim shook his head, refusing to agree.
"It was over," he said Thursday sitting in the Tigers' dugout before a 4-0 Grapefruit League loss to Philadelphia. "There were no lingering, carry-over thoughts. Both teams played their hearts out. You can't ask for anything more than that. It was one of the greatest games you'll ever see."
He insists he's not looking back, that bringing this re-tooled team together with about three weeks of Spring Training left is his total focus.
To an outsider, this appears to be a Herculean task. The Tigers traded away center fielder Curtis Granderson and starting pitcher Edwin Jackson. Relievers Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney left via free agency.
So did second baseman Placido Polanco.
Ah, yes, Polanco.
The crafty Leyland will never reveal how deep the hurt was/is after the colossal collapse followed by the departures of Granderson and the three pitchers.
Polanco, who signed with the Phillies and was at third base on Thursday, is a different story.
Mention his name to Leyland and his eyes become red.
"I'm really missing him," he said. "That has nothing to do with Scott Sizemore [Polanco's rookie replacement at second base]. I'm just saying I'm missing Polanco a lot."
Prior to each game, Polanco would stop by Leyland's office, a ritual for the two of them. "That was kind of my little warm-up and that was his little warm-up.
"He is one of the all-time treats for a manager because you never worried about him," Leyland said. "You knew he was going to be the same every single day. You knew he was going to be ready every day. He was a real pleasure."
Leyland was on a roll now, saying you don't replace a Polanco.
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"You have to be realistic," the skipper said. "We're talking about a guy that had almost 600 hits in three years.
"I don't know if we're supposed to be friends with players [after they go to another team], but we're friends. I think the world of him. He's a ballplayer. If you graded him out, you probably wouldn't make him one of the best athletes you've ever seen, but he's one of the best baseball players in the game."
"He never misses a ground ball, he turns the double play -- every one he's supposed to turn. He uses the whole field with his bat, knows exactly what he's doing at the plate. Some guys are athletes, some guys are baseball players. He's a helluva baseball player and I'll tell you that. You don't even know he's around until the game starts. He's just special and I knew that long before I became manager of the Tigers."
General manager Dave Dombrowski made Leyland's task for 2010 easier when he signed free-agent outfielder Johnny Damon, a more-than-adequate replacement for Granderson.
"The transition coming here has been easier than I thought it would be," Damon said Thursday. "It's my goal to help get this team back to the postseason."
Spend even a few minutes with Leyland and it's easy to see why he's been so successful. Even though he's 65, he relates well to his players during an era when it's often difficult for older baseball people.
I mentioned something to him about pitching and his answer was almost like a clinic on the subject -- strong, to the point, no sugarcoating. This approach might dent the sensitive armor of some players, but this is what works for Leyland.
"This manager judges pitchers on how they get people out when they throw strikes," Leyland said. "At the Major League level, you don't get people out throwing balls unless you've got a nasty splitter -- Justin Verlander's type stuff -- where they might swing at a 98 mph fastball up high."
It sounds so simple. I've always bored people with my belief that a pitcher who throws strike one consistently has a much better chance to be a winner.
"I agree," said Leyland. "Strike one is he most important pitch in baseball. You need to throw strikes. That's my opinion and I'm sticking with it. You need to throw strikes and you need to have good enough stuff to get people out in the strike zone if you want to be a successful Major League pitcher.
"That goes for this team or any other team. There's a message there for everybody on this team. That's the way it is. If you're going to pitch 2-and-0 you're going to get your butt kicked."
End of sermon.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.