Yesterday morning, an era in Detroit came to a close. Around 11:30 am on October 21st, Jim Leyland officially resigned as the manager of the Detroit Tigers, thus ending his eight year tenure with the team. Needless to say, I am not totally surprised by his decision, but that doesn’t change how heartbroken I am. I could give you all of his career stats with the team, but I want to make this article as much Leyland-ified as possible, and talking about statistics has never been Smokey’s style. What I will talk about though is my observations of Leyland as a manager and give my personal thoughts on him, just as he would for any of his players. No numbers, no percentages, just raw observations and gut feelings.
The first thing that must be addressed is that Jim Leyland was the key piece to bringing respect and relevancy back to Detroit baseball. In 2006, I obviously didn’t know a lot about the organization as a whole; I was nine years old then and still focusing on my little league skills. What I did know was that they had a catcher named Pudge, an outfielder with big hair named Magglio (whom I idolized), and were generally thought of as the laughing stock of the baseball world. However, once the Tigers hired Jim Leyland as their manager, I knew that there was something special going on in Detroit. It wasn’t because I knew all about his winning history, or even knew that I grew up in the same town that he was raised in; those were all details that I learned later through my baseball maturing process. I was under the impression that Detroit was building something special simply because that is what other fans in my family told me. Being that I was nine, when I was told something, I usually just nodded my head and went along with it. So that’s what I did, I went along with it and continued to watch the Detroit Tigers play baseball.
Well, in 2006 things sort of went a little different than usual. As we all remember, the Tigers won quite a few games that year. Although I was a lot younger, I remember every little detail about the moment when Magglio hit the walk off homer to send the Tigers to the World Series. I was in my step-uncle’s on St. Joseph’s Island in Canada listening to the game on a radio plugged into the wall. Five of my family members including my brother and I were gathered in the living room listening, when all of a sudden we heard Dan Dickerson’s angelic voice erupt with excitement. We ran around outside yelling and banging pots and pans in the air. It was 25 degrees max outside and there was at least a foot of snow on the ground. No one even thought to care. It was pandemonium, and I loved every second of it. While the moment belonged to Magglio after he hit the “shot heard around the world,” Jim Leyland was clearly the story of the year. Once Leyland arrived, it just seemed like all of the pieces started to fall into place. Higher caliber players wanted to come to Detroit to get to play for the “old school” Jim Leyland. Fans started to pack the park again to watch the team actually play baseball instead of just drinking themselves silly. The Detroit Tigers were back, and Jim Leyland was the face of the drastic turnaround.
To be completely honest, for me to say that Jim Leyland knew how to win is silly. No manager “knows how to win,” they simply try and do their best by working with the twenty five man roster that they are given. One of the main reason that Leyland had success in Detroit is because he put so much trust in his players, something he has admitted to doing everywhere he has managed in his career. Jimmy was never afraid to show how much he cared for his team. He would defend each member to the end of the earth, even when it meant taking unnecessary blame. Whenever something went wrong in a game, he would always go back to something that he thought he could’ve done better. For this, his players always showed him the utmost respect. Leyland’s attitude toward his players always brought out the best in each of them, something I think really contributed to the Tigers revitalization.
I am a numbers guy. I thoroughly believe that advanced metrics should be embraced more by major league managers because when used correctly, they will help a team win. Jim Leyland laughed in the face of sabermetrics. For this, I will always have a minor frustration with him. At the same time, he focused on something that I think is critically undervalued in professional sports today: team chemistry. Leyland would always let the players police themselves around the clubhouse. He never felt the need to spend much time in there because he trusted that the players would be able to handle themselves together. All of his teams in Detroit (minus the dreadful 2008 team) played with an identity that showed they cared more about the overall results than their personal statistics. He always managed with a laid back style, but this was always because he believed in staying calm. On the bench, he always acted as the calming force to look up to. He believed that panic was the worst way to handle a baseball team. If Leyland was calm, then the whole team would follow suit in any given situation.
While Leyland was calm and collected on the bench, he always had that fire and passion for the game burning inside of him. Leyland cared about the game, and cared even more about the Detroit Tigers. This was always imminent in his post game interviews. I can recall many post game interviews where he has been heated over certain things and even more instances where he has broken down and cried. His emotions rubbed off on all of his players. He cared for his players, and his players clearly cared for him. Many times I can remember different players, whether it be superstar Miguel Cabrera or perennial utility man Don Kelly, saying that they wanted to win a certain game for Leyland. A League of their Own taught me that there is no crying in baseball, but I can definitely make an exception in Jimmy’s case.
People have always and will always try and point out Jim Leyland’s managerial flaws, but something that no one can argue with is the amount of success he has had throughout his career. There is no such thing as a perfect manager. If you are a fan that is waiting for one, then you might as well stop following sports all together. Despite not winning a World Series in Detroit, the success that Leyland had in his eight years is almost unparalleled. Four playoff appearances, three division titles, and two World Series appearances is spectacular. Obviously sending him out with a World Series win in Detroit would’ve been amazing, but that narrative shouldn’t cloud all of the other achievements that the Tigers celebrated in his tenure. The way the season ended stunk. Everyone knows that, including Jim Leyland. He also knew that no matter what happened, he was done managing and nothing was going to change his mind. So after eight seasons, we bid him adieu.
Jim Leyland always said that you can’t quantify team chemistry, so today I’ll put my own little twist on that quote. You can’t quantify all of the the amazing things that Jim Leyland did for the Detroit Tigers. Although he will still be involved with the front office of the organization, it won’t be the same seeing someone else standing on the top step of the Tigers dugout, no matter who it may be. To some all of this up, I want to personally say thank you, Jim Leyland. Thank you for bringing baseball back to Detroit. Thank you for putting up with all of the scrutiny you took for your lineups and bullpen usage through the years. Thank you for all of your baseball lessons that can be attributed to everyday life. Thank you for making me laugh by moonwalking during celebrations and smoking like a chimney no matter where you were at. Thank you for everything that you did in your eight years in Detroit, both the major accomplishments, and the small Leyland-isms. It feels like yesterday that the Tigers made the much anticipated announcement that Jim Leyland had been hired. I guess the old cliche is true; time really does fly when you’re having fun, and these past eight seasons have been great fun if you’re a fan of the Detroit Tigers. Farewell, skipper, and one more final thank you for your time in Detroit.