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10/18/12 11:00 PM ET
Leyland sets tone for Detroit's rise to Series
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
DETROIT -- Jim Leyland stood in the middle of the infield at Comerica Park on Thursday night and looked around, soaking in this moment: the celebration raging around him, a packed house screaming and cheering, roaring even, with an American League pennant clinched. The Detroit manager -- a baseball lifer and the orchestrator of this Motown renaissance -- spoke into a microphone, his gravelly voice carrying throughout the stadium. With so many emotions forcing their way to the surface, Leyland gave his audience a glimpse into his unselfish nature. "We're one big happy family here," Leyland said. "I'm just glad I'm part of it."
Leyland is more than part of what has taken place this season in Detroit.He has led the way. Throughout a trying season -- one in which he received plenty of criticism given the early shortcomings of a Tigers club built on a big payroll and big bodies -- Leyland did all he could to calm the storm. There was plenty of time, he preached. If Detroit did not get swept up in the storm, the talent was in place to achieve its goals. Now, here the Tigers sit, four wins away from their first World Series triumph since 1984 after sweeping the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Four more wins, and Leyland will have his first World Series title since guiding the Marlins to the crown in 1997. He is already the first Detroit manager since Mickey Cochrane in 1934-35 to lead the franchise to two American League pennants. Not that any of those footnotes matter to Leyland. "I don't really care about stuff like that," Leyland said. "I appreciate it, but I don't care about it. The players need to be the focus, and I always tried to leave it that way. I think all good managers have one thing in common: When you win, you credit the players, and when you lose, you shoulder the responsibility." Plenty of others will credit Leyland. That is why Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, minutes after Detroit sent the Yankees home on the heels of an 8-1 loss, made it clear that the 67-year-old Leyland is welcome to return as manager for 2013. Leyland's contract expires at the end of this season, and while he has voiced a desire to remain at the helm, there is always the possibility of a glorious exit. Just one year ago, Leyland's longtime friend, Tony La Russa, stepped away from managing after leading the Cardinals to a World Series win over the Rangers. La Russa, who was in Detroit during this series, chuckled when asked if he might advise Leyland to retire on top if the Tigers win it all. "If I told him that, then he'd manage 10 more years," La Russa said. "He does the exact opposite of what I tell him. If I tell him how lousy it is, he might retire." The decision to remain in Detroit appears to be in Leyland's hands. "Jim Leyland is welcome back here," Dombrowski said. "He knows that. He's in a situation where we want him back, and I'm sure that he wants to come back. I would think that would be the way. But, there's a time and a place for that. It's not right now." No, now is the time to marvel at what Detroit has achieved under Leyland this year. On June 12, the Tigers were 28-33 and six games back of the AL Central lead. The club chipped away over the next three months, pulling to within one game of the division-leading White Sox on Sept. 23. Then, over the final 10 games, the Tigers rattled off eight victories, stealing the Central away from Chicago for a second straight division title. Detroit resided in first place in just 10 of the season's final 146 games. "I just reminded everybody when we took our punches all year," Leyland said, "let's just wait until the end, and then if we have underachieved, I will be the first one to admit it. But let us play out the schedule to see if we underachieve. "So hopefully we've quieted some doubters now. The guys just stepped it up when we had to." Throughout Detroit's struggles, Leyland remained calm and confident and that attitude carried over to his players as the season wore on. It was that consistency -- the faith that everything would turn out fine by the time the schedule ran out -- that helped the Tigers pull this off. "That's what it took to get us going," Tigers ace Justin Verlander said. "He never pressed, never had a big team meeting or a rah-rah speech. Just trusted in his guys like we trusted in ourselves. I think that was the biggest thing that this team needed." When Detroit punched its ticket to the playoffs, Leyland's message to the team was simple. "He said, 'Take it in now. Relax, enjoy it,'" Tigers catcher Gerald Laird said. "'Take it in, and play every game hard. And if they beat you, they beat you.' That's all he said. He said just go enjoy it, because this is the time that you prepare for every year in Spring Training, to get to this moment." Leyland has spent decades preparing for this type of moment. A man that came up as a backup catcher in Detroit's farm system -- one that never surpassed Double-A as a player -- now ranks 15th all-time with 1,676 regular-season wins as a manager. He led Pittsburgh to the National League Championship Series three times (1990-92), won it all with the Marlins and took Detroit to the World Series in his first year as manager in 2006. Along the way, Leyland has earned the respect of his players and his peers, allowing him to manage 21 seasons in the big leagues. "To me," La Russa said, "there's no one in baseball who's better than he is." Given Leyland's short resume as a player, that is an incredible feat. It was La Russa who gave Leyland his first big league job. When La Russa was the manager of the White Sox in 1982, he took Leyland on as his third-base coach. "Jim is a special case," said La Russa, who then laughed. "Even I was a better player than Jim was, and I was lousy. He was lousier. He didn't have any kind of background, but when he came to coach in '82, he had already been managing for 11 or 12 years [in the Minors]. "His reputation as a baseball man was well known. That's what he had to do. He did it the right way." The right way consists of a simple formula. "You trust your players. You trust their ability," Leyland said. "You trust they will have themselves ready to play. And you try to stay out of the way. I mean, they're the show. That's the way it is supposed to be, so I try to show them that respect." That is what has worked for Leyland over the years. This season could go down as his greatest yet. "It wasn't easy," Leyland said. "But here we are. We're still playing."