This old lady who sat in front of me at church used to talk about baseball. She’d talk about the Detroit Tigers, sometimes even the Single A Lansing Lugnuts. She who remembered the ‘68 World Series had this stoic affection for her ballclub. She didn’t so much cheer for the team as want good things for her guys, even though she knew it wasn’t going to work out. I came to baseball late – never played baseball, and the only competitive rival the Tigers could plausibly claim was the Detroit Lions, for futility. Michigan sports was a bit of a wasteland growing up – I’d missed the "Bad Boys" Pistons teams, the Lions had been a joke my whole life, and the Tigers had not won a division title since 1987.
So, I didn’t pay attention to baseball as a kid – never thought to. It seemed funny how someone with downy white hair and big pearl earrings could care so much about the game, until 2006 came and brought Jim Leyland, Justin Verlander, and the first really good Tigers team of my life.
My older brother was excited about the Tigers that spring, so he took me to Comerica Park in late May. The Tigers were 34-14, playing the Cleveland Indians at home on a Saturday night. My first look at our baseball diamond – set against the emerald green outfield and slate blue sky – came with the pitcher halfway through his windup. Chris Shelton rifled the ball to center. It was beautiful. The Tigers won and I learned how baseball can take over your life in the summer.
Jim Leyland has been in the dugout for as long as I’ve loved the Tigers. He’s the only Tigers manager I’ve ever known. And he was an important part of making the Tigers a team that you can be proud to love, and of making me care about the game of baseball. Not in terms of the wins, though surely he deserves credit for keeping that many big personalities working together during seasons that can be a real grind.
"To have this moment in Yankee Stadium for Donnie Kelly . . . that’s real special," Leyland told reporters after Game 5. "That's a memory he’ll have – Cabrera and those guys are going to have millions of memories, but this is one that Donnie Kelly'll have forever and it's a real special moment."
Leyland didn’t play Kelly as a favor that day – "you don’t get sentimental at this time of year," he said before the game – but he had the empathy and the compassion to know how it mattered. A career minor-leaguer who hit .222, Leyland planned to go back to Perrysburg, Ohio, and work when his short career ended. He appreciates the excellence of guys like Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander and he knows what it means for a guy like Don Kelly to break through in a way he never could.
The respect that Leyland showed for his players and commanded from them turned Tigers baseball into a beautiful thing. If you think I’m overstating it, just remember that we haven’t had to endure the summer soap operas that are every season in the Big Apple. We’ve watched great players play great baseball.
A friend suggested that there’s a relationship between the rise of baseball and the Industrial Revolution. I don’t know if it’s an original idea or not, but his point was that at the moment that people started following the dictates of a factory bell, a game with no clock took hold of the country. It defied time; in theory, a game could go on forever if no one gets that last out.
Jim Leyland can’t stop the clock. "The fuel was getting a little low," he said to explain his decision to step down as manager.
In a way, it hurts more to lose Leyland than to lose to the Red Sox last week. That, at least, was a defeat suffered in a near-Sisyphean attempt to win the World Series. He and Justin Verlander came in together, so we’re losing part of the core that’s been here from the beginning of this great era of Tigers baseball. No one knows what next season holds – maybe a horrible year, maybe the best since 1984 – but there’s always next season.
Not for Jim Leyland, though. This was his last season. I'm sad to see him go.