Jim Leyland can come across as a caricature of an old-school manager. A baseball lifer, hitting fungoes in shorts in windy, 50-degree weather on an October workout day, he looks like he stepped out of a sports movie, where he would be the coach, right out of Central Casting, yelling at the hero to work harder, do more pushups, run more laps. That’s if he weren’t playing an actual drill sergeant, or maybe a cavalry scout in the old West. There’s the mustache, the deep growl of a voice, the rugged face, and (perhaps related to those last two) the years of smoking -- right there in the dugout until, finally, he was no longer allowed. And he seems fully aware of the impression he gives off.
“I’m just grumpy once in a while because you have to be grumpy or sometimes you guys don't get the message,” he told reporters before Game 3 of his Tigers’ doomed World Series effort. “So everybody think I'm a grumpy old man. I'm old but I'm not grumpy.”
Not only is Leyland not so grumpy, he is not even that old, or at least not as old as he looks: 67, which if not exactly spring chicken-ish is also not as grizzled as he projects. (He also has a surprisingly good singing voice.) Still, he’s been in the game since the Tigers brought him on as a catcher in 1963. So he’s grizzled enough.
The Tigers re-signed Leyland to a one-year contract extension on Tuesday, two days after Detroit was unceremoniously drummed out of the World Series in four straight games by the San Francisco Giants. The circumstances were not exactly triumphant, but it’s hard to pin the loss on Leyland: He got his team to the final round ... and then everyone stopped hitting. He’d seen the same thing happen to the Yankees just a week before, when the Tigers swept them out of the ALCS.
He took a share of responsibility for how it all ended anyway. “You always look to see if you miss a trick,” he said after Saturday’s penultimate loss. “Maybe I need to be a little more creative ... we talk about us, we don't talk about individuals. So basically as a team, as manager, coaches and a team, we've obviously got to do a little bit better.”
There was talk in Detroit earlier this season, when the Tigers were making what looked like it might be a futile run at the Chicago White Sox, that Leyland would or should be fired. Sometimes a manager does nothing wrong, per se, but a change needs to be made for the sake of change -- a fresh start, a clean slate. It’s easier to replace the manager than the players, of course, so he is sacrificed on the altar of the new beginning. That’s part of the job. And maybe there’s some of that still in the air in Detroit, which along with Leyland’s age might help account for the fact that his extension is only for a single season (“all I wanted and I'm sure it's all they wanted to do,” he said at the press conference). But it’s very hard to picture Leyland, at this point in his career, becoming any sort of lame duck.
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Leyland is often brought up as a candidate to make the Hall of Fame as a manager, and his case is an interesting one. His 1,676 managerial wins are 15th on MLB’s all-time list; but then there’s the 1,659 losses. Of the 14 managers ahead of him in wins, nine are in the Hall and four more have a decent-to-sure shot at it: Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Lou Piniella. If those four were inducted, it would leave Gene Mauch, who wound up with a losing record, as the only manager with more wins than Leyland not in the Hall.
Leyland has three Manager of the Year awards and finished in the top 10 seven other times. He has won three pennants in his 21 years as a manager, and one World Series. That’s more World Series wins than most of us have, of course, but it may be a sticking point for some voters; in any case, he’s not a slam-dunk case like La Russa (whom Leyland worked under as coach from 1982 through '85 with the White Sox, before leaving to manage the Pirates, with whom he racked up 863 of those losses in 11 years).
Leyland may or may not be a Hall of Famer, but it’s tempting to give him the benefit of the doubt, because he manages to be both iconic of a fading old-school approach and, at the same time, handles players, media and fans with an intelligence, sensitivity and respect that feels very modern. He’s not, in fact, the grumpy old growler he knows he looks like, though he uses that persona to his advantage.
Leyland is careful to never single out any of his players for blame. Again and again in the World Series, asked why this player was not hitting or whether that player had cost them the game, he would only say that the Tigers won and lost as a team and that a loss was not on any one player. This is an ancient and by now clichéd practice, but it has endeared him to his players, as does the fact that he treats them like adults.
Often managers, even the good ones, feel they need to do or say something to motivate a team, whether the team needs motivation or not, simply for the sake of being seen to have taken action. After Game 3, when asked what he would tell his players, Leyland responded: “Well, you don't really have to tell them anything. They can count.… There's no secret formula or message for them. They're big guys, they know what the situation is.”
He did say before Game 4 that he would speak to them: “not a pep talk, it's just guys are a little tough on themselves. There's nothing wrong with making an out. There's nothing wrong with striking out. That happens. That's been going on in the game for years. Don't beat yourself up.”
If this seems a bit lacking in urgency, well, there is plenty of urgency to go around in the elimination game of a World Series without the manager piling on.
At the same time, Leyland does not get defensive or angry when questioned about these things. Asked about a decision to bring the infield in, he will respond without defensiveness or condescension with a breakdown of the strategy and implications of defensive positioning given the baserunners and inning and number of outs. You may not always agree with his moves, but be assured that he has thought-out reasons for them.
Leyland has been managing the Tigers for seven years, which in today's game is a long time. He may not have much longer there, and he may not want much longer. But for now, Detroit is lucky to have him. Leyland has the gift of adjusting with the times, of relying on decades of accumulated knowledge without getting inflexible or, as he put it, grumpy.
Well, maybe just a little grumpy.