Jim Leyland's historic importance goes beyond his record -- a record that includes 1,769 wins, six division championships, three league championships, and a World Series title with Florida in 1997. Leyland is also important because of where he was: Pittsburgh with Barry Bonds and their early 1990s run, Florida for their first mercenary championship, Detroit for Miguel Cabrera's ascendance as the league's greatest hitter.
But on top of that, Leyland was important for his personality. He was one of the definitive managers of his era, the ones who played the game in the 1960s and had their managerial senses sharpened throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The buck stopped with Leyland, and whether he was dealing with some minor leaguer or the biggest superstar in the game, Leyland was not going to be pushed around -- and he made sure people knew it.
When Pittsburgh hired Leyland prior to the 1986 season, the Pittsburgh Press introduced him with a story from his days managing Detroit's Lakeland affiliate. It remains perfectly Leylandian even to this day:
"Frank Decker, who owns the Lakeland Tigers, likes to talk about Jim Leyland, his former manager. Decker remembers one road trip he made to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He wandered into Leyland's hotel room and found him sitting at the window with a pair of binoculars.
He was neither doing his best Jimmy Stewart "Rear Window" imitation, nor was he bird watching. His attention was focused upon the entrance to the bar across the street, out of which could stagger any of his players who had partied beyond curfew.
At 1 a.m., Johnny Murphy, a pitcher, weaved out of the bar. Leyland leaned out of the window and shouted, "Murph, it's already cost you 50 bucks. You might as well make a night of it."
Without hesitation, Murphy turned, went back into the bar and got his money's worth."
The Press compared Leyland to Billy Martin, the on-again-off-again Yankees manager (with stints in Minnesota, Detroit, Texas and Oakland as well). Leyland was feisty and remained so throughout his Detroit days, even if the feist manifested itself in different ways as he aged.
Both Martin and Leyland were clear figures of authority. Both were willing to get in an umpire's face -- Leyland was ejected 68 times in his 22 seasons, whereas Martin was ejected 46 times in 16 campaigns (a number of them shortened by George Steinbrenner firings), an average of about three per season for each. They even looked alike -- wispy, mustachoied, and usually irritated about something.
Martin was much more openly aggressive -- Leyland wasn't the fighting type Martin was -- but both had elements of the alpha male, and both imposed their personalities onto their teams. Managers like Leyland took the aggressive leadership of Martin and channeled it in a calmer fashion, less drill sergeant and more paternal. Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, Davey Johnson, even Bobby Valentine -- they all fit this mold in one way or another. Toughness was key for this generation of manager. It gave them their authority.
Now Brad Ausmus replaces Leyland in Detroit's dugout. He is 44, two years older than Leyland was when he took over in Pittsburgh, and about half a decade older than Leyland was when he told Johnny Murphy to get his money's worth in the bar across the street from the team hotel. The differences come from the pair's wildly divergent paths: Ausmus', through Northeast and Dartmouth, contrasted with Leyland's, through rust belt Ohio and the minor league fields of Lakeland.
Just as Frank Decker knew late-30s Leyland, the one who yelled out of hotel windows at drunk minor leaguers, would become a major league manager, Ausmus' teammates knew he would eventually take a spot at the helm of a major league club. But it wasn't Ausmus's demeanor or his ability to project authority that enthralled the teammates and managers who, to a man, declared he'd manager someday. It was what he knows.
"He's the Greg Maddux of catching. Maddux understood hitters' weaknesses better, by far, than any other pitcher of his era, and as far as catchers go, Brad's the same way," Orioles catching instructor Dave Engle said.
As a player, Ausmus was admired for his wit, his ability to connect with all 25 players on a roster, and most of all, for just how much he knew about the game. He compared what he saw when opposing hitters stepped up to the plate to what mathematician and physicist John Nash saw in A Beautiful Mind. Billy Martin and Jim Leyland, for all they were, were nothing like John Nash.
This isn't to say Ausmus will never discipline players, or that authority is gone from the clubhouse. As Mike Hampton, a teammate of Ausmus' in the late 1990s, said "Everything he says is pretty much right on, and he doesn't care if you're a guy like Nolan Ryan or a rookie who just got called up, he's going to bust your balls. You need guys like that."
But there's something notable about where Ausmus's authority comes from -- not the imminent threat of ball-busting, but an intimate trust of his knowledge of the game. This seems to be the trend in managerial hires in MLB, even beyond Ausmus. For every Kirk Gibson hired, there are two Joe Maddons joining the managerial ranks. Knowledge of the game will inherently bring authority. This was the logic behind the hirings of guys like Mike Matheny, Mike Redmond, Walt Weiss and Robin Ventura -- young guys with little to no experience managing, but with a clear and demonstrable knowledge of baseball.
This is not to say La Russa, Leyland, and the like weren't great baseball minds. They won too many games and spent too long in the league not to be. But their job was seen first and foremost as one of authority: provide leadership and keep the players in line first, win with tactical decisions second. The Pittsburgh Press eventually referred to Leyland's in-game managerial style -- his agressive nature, his willingness to steal bases and put runners in motion and do anything to score a run -- but not until after his reputation as an authority figure was established.
Baseball is adapting to a world in which the Ivy League and the National League intersect. It's adapting to a world in which the manager must not only make sure the player performs, but is happy to be where he is. It's adapting to a world in which not every player in the dugout has the same idea of what authority is and should be, but in which every player respects authority derived from understanding the goal at hand.
This is a shift that has been inevitable for some time now, for a variety of reasons: The rise of free agency and the increase in player power; the rise of analytics in baseball; the integration of more and more international players into the major league ranks. It started well before Detroit's transition from Jim Leyland to Brad Ausmus, but no transition better emphasizes the changes baseball and the world around it has undergone in the past 30 years.