Leyland's old-school style resonates with Tigers
Players support skipper, whose contract is up at the end of this season
DETROIT -- There's still quite a bit of the Toledo suburb of Perrysburg, Ohio, in Jim Leyland. And there's a little bit of Leyland in Perrysburg.
Tucked into the city center of Perrysburg, right around the corner from the municipal building and the mayor's office, and across the street from the fire station, is a modest house where the Leyland family made their home. When he was growing up, it was part of the neighborhood in a relatively quiet town. Now, it's part of a block that houses most of the government for a sprawling city.
The city now owns the house. Eventually, Leyland figures, they'll tear the house down to expand the municipal complex. For now, though, his brother still lives there, and Leyland still considers it home, venturing down on off-days, about an hour's drive from Detroit.
"Perrysburg's big," he said. "When I was a kid, it was 4,500 [people]. It was one square mile when I was kid. You could walk everywhere. Now it's huge."
Now, it's nearly five times the population and 11 times the size it was when Leyland was a kid, and it includes a high school on the other side town whose baseball field bears Leyland's name.
To clean up one of Leyland's favorite sayings: Stuff happens fast.
"Whole different world," Leyland continued. "My dad was a factory worker. Their big treat was to get Long John Silver's fish on Friday night."
When Leyland was a backup catcher in the Tigers' farm system, he'd come back each year and find an offseason job. One year, he worked in a glass factory, paid by the hour to cut windshields.
The money he makes now dwarfs anything he did as a player, but with his contract up at season's end, he can relate to the feeling of working paycheck to paycheck.
Thirty-six years ago, Leyland was managing year to year with the Tigers' Class A affiliate in Lakeland, Fla., focusing on developing prospects such as Lou Whitaker. In case anyone thought winning was secondary then, there's a giant photo of Ty Cobb in the manager's office with a tear at the bottom, the victim of Leyland throwing his spikes at the wall following a tough loss.
"The picture's still there with the scotch tape still on it," Leyland said. "That's hard to believe, that it's still there."
Twenty years ago, Leyland had rebuilt the Pittsburgh Pirates back to glory with three consecutive division titles behind perennial Most Valuable Player Award candidate Barry Bonds. Leyland, the former Minor League farmhand who waited years for his shot in the big leagues, had made it big. Yet for all the victories -- and the Pirates haven't had a winning season since he left -- Leyland's most famous moment from Pittsburgh for many remains his Spring Training shouting match with Bonds in front of cameras.
Now, Leyland manages the defending American League Central champions, a Tigers team that includes the reigning AL Cy Young Award and MVP Award winner, the favorites for the same honors this year, the top two strikeout pitchers in baseball, a hitter who could earn the first batting Triple Crown in 45 years and the Home Run Derby champion. He's managing them all, however, without a net. On a team stocked with big-contract players, Leyland is without a contract for next season.
"I haven't discussed my situation with anyone, nor has my situation been discussed with me," Leyland said. "And I don't want to discuss my situation with anyone, nor do they want to discuss it with me right now. We're trying to win a division."
When Leyland agreed to a one-year contract last August, he felt comfortable going season to season. Leyland doesn't want to be stuck managing longer than he wants for the sake of a contract -- as he did in Colorado in 1999. Leyland also doesn't want to stay where he's not wanted.
In that sense, Leyland took from his good friend, one-time boss and confidant, former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who worked under similar contracts during his final years with St. Louis.
Leyland knew the contract speculation could find him, but couldn't predict he'd go into the final days of the season not knowing his status beyond October -- his status possibly hinging on the Tigers playing into October.
No active manager has more wins than Leyland, who ranks 15th all time. Yet if the Tigers don't hold off the White Sox and win the AL Central, Leyland's career could close without so much as a ceremony.
On the flip side, if the Tigers continue their roll and carry it into October, Leyland will join Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings as the only Tigers managers to reach three postseasons. From there, Leyland could join La Russa and Sparky Anderson as managers who led teams from both leagues to World Series titles.
That's the range with these Tigers, the mystery of how they'll play. And Detroit's mystery is Leyland's mystery.
To critics, Leyland is the old model of a Major League manager, who sometimes goes on feel as well as numbers and doesn't profess to know all of the advanced metrics. He knows Wins Above Replacement, but he's not going to espouse it.
To others, Leyland has applied old-school techniques to a new-school clubhouse, where superstars wield enough power to make or break coaching staffs. For all the second-guessing of his lineups, all the grief about his bullpen usage, Leyland still won best manager honors by a vote of his peers in a Baseball America survey last month.
What makes this 67-year-old man connect with players less than half his age is the same thing that has connected mangers with players for decades.
"[Leyland] might be older, but he gets it," utility man Don Kelly said. "He's got that desire to compete and win. That's the common bond there. Everybody in here has got it. He's definitely got it."
Leyland wants to win badly, and he has carried must-win expectations this year, perhaps heavier than in any season he has managed. Yet never has that stress visibly seeped into the clubhouse, which might be more relaxed this year than last.
"There hasn't been much drama within the clubhouse or anything like that, despite times during the year when we've been inconsistent," catcher Alex Avila said. "I think that's a credit to not only [Leyland] but the staff we have.
"That's why I think there's been no sense of panic in here. It's a pretty level-headed club, and that starts with Skip and the coaching staff."
Sometimes, it's an odd mix. Leyland doesn't believe in getting ejected from a game to ignite a squad, calling it "eye wash," yet he has been ejected from five games this season.
Leyland communicates with his players during batting practice daily, going around the field to check on his players. That's where he makes his little points -- individually. Yet even this season, ask Leyland if he has considered a team meeting during the rough spots of Detroit's roller-coaster season, and he'll say professional ballplayers don't need a rah-rah speech.
"That went out with high-button shoes," Leyland said.
High-button shoes? Has that much time passed by Leyland?
You hear the stories from his days growing up, how he once drove around Perrysburg with the windows up in the middle of summer so that his friends thought he had a car with air conditioning, and you wonder if he's stuck in a different era.
Then you hear the story from Chicago two weeks ago, with Miguel Cabrera and the heckling fan, and you realize how he fits in here and now.
For those not familiar with the incident, before a game against the White Sox two weeks ago, a fan approached Cabrera asking for an autograph while carrying a "Fire Leyland" sign. The fan was going to try to get Cabrera on his cell phone camera talking about Leyland and the decisions the manager makes, and then post it online.
Cabrera took the sign and tucked it under his arm for a few minutes while he signed autographs. He ignored the questions and went about his business. When the fan called him a sign stealer, Cabrera laughed, handed the sign to a security guard and had the guard give it back to the fan.
"I think they don't realize how hard it is," Cabrera later said of Leyland's job.
And that's when you realize the former Double-A backup catcher who wouldn't back down from Bonds 20 years ago -- and earned the respect of the game's best hitter at the time -- has the respect of arguably the best hitter in the game now.