By Matt Crossman
Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland entered the team's clubhouse in spring training on the first day reporters were there a few years ago. He stopped and talked to a couple of players. He was old enough to be their grandfather but left them laughing and smiling in his wake.
He looked buoyant and half-strutted across the room -- this was his element, working his room, building his team, the thing in his professional life he is best at. Maybe he was energized, too, by the fact there had been a controversial story about the Tigers online that morning. As he walked to his office, he saw the Tigers' beat writer for mlb.com and identified him as the target to open the conversation about the subject because he knew the questions were coming soon.
"Jason Beck! In my clubhouse! Stirring up [expletive]!"
It was obvious by his tone that Leyland was joking. It was his way of saying hello after a long winter off.
You never knew what you were going to get when Leyland sat at his desk with the old English D on his chest ... or lounged on his couch in his underwear (really -- the man spends a lot of time in his skivvies) ... and said, "Any questions?"
Since Leyland took over the Tigers in 2006 he led the league in tears, f-bombs, smokes and could've beens. With general manager Dave Dombrowski's players and owner Mike Ilitch's money, he transformed the Tigers from a team that was as unwatchable as it was unlikable into a yearly contender full of local folk heroes.
Through it all, Leyland remained the cryingest, curmudgeoniest, confoundingest man in the game. He was as likely to start weeping over something utility man Don Kelly did as he was to go off on a NSFW rant. There was a method to his madness, though -- often writers focused on the rant and not whatever precipitated it. Even his non-rant answers were salt-and-peppered with unprintable words, simply because that's how he talks. The ever-present blue language shot through an ever-present haze of blue smoke. The man loves his Marlboro Reds.
Alas, the smoke has cleared for the final time for Leyland. He announced his retirement on Monday, two days after the Tigers bungled their way out of the ALCS. At 68, he says he's too old to be a manager anymore. He plans to take another, as yet unidentified, role with the club. Fond comments poured in from everyone from his current and former players to former White Sox and Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen to Tony La Russa, one of Leyland's best friends.
In time the kudos will come from Tigers fans, too, but for now the pain in Detroit after the ALCS debacle might be too fresh for his legacy to get a fair rendering there. Still, the fact the Tigers are better off for the eight seasons he was the manager is beyond doubt.
The Tigers were among the worst teams in baseball when he arrived. Worse than that, they were nowhere in Detroit, having ceded the town they once ruled to the Red Wings and Lions. By taking the Tigers to the World Series in 2006, Leyland revitalized the once proud franchise. The culture has so completely changed that fans now feel justified in complaining that the team is not in first place by enough games. They get worked up every August over how long it takes the team to win the division.
Leyland does leave one big hole on his Tigers resume: He did not win a World Series. Many fans point to Leyland for the Tigers' bizarre tendency to play their worst baseball at the most important time, as they did in the 2006 and 2012 World Series and the 2013 ALCS.
It's debatable how much blame Leyland deserves for that. He contributed to it, for sure. He sometimes seemed wound too tight, and maybe that rubbed off on his players. But criticism that the team played poorly in the postseason is actually validation of Leyland's work in Detroit. Before Leyland became the manager, winning seasons, never mind repeat trips to the postseason, were unimaginable for the Tigers.
After the Tigers won the American League Central title this season, Leyland talked with reporters about the team's fourth postseason trip in his eight years as manager. Right fielder Torii Hunter walked in, threw Leyland over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and carted him off to the celebration. After hopping around a little bit with his players, Leyland moonwalked out of the room, right through a tarp set up to protect part of the clubhouse from champagne.
It was a fantastically charming moment (and an awesome GIF) and perhaps the very best part was that none of it was surprising. Not the fact one of Leyland's players so wanted him to join the celebration that he carried him to it, not the fact Leyland danced, and certainly not the fact he led the team to the postseason.
Considering the state of the team when he took over, the fact that success is now a given every year for the Detroit Tigers should be Leyland's legacy.
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