SB Nation

Kurt Mensching | November 4, 2013

Leyland’s Legacy

How the nicest asshole in the game transformed Detroit's baseball culture

Before the tears, before the swears, before the wins, before the rants, there was the admission. "I didn't attack the manager's job the way you should," said Jim Leyland, a Tigers minor-league never-was from below the Michigan border, meeting the press for the first time on an early October day in Detroit and acknowledging his ignominious exit from the game six years earlier when he resigned as manager of the Rockies.

"Running a team, there are always egos involved and little fires you have to put out. I didn't put out those fires." Fitting, then, that on a pleasant September evening following a victory over the Royals in Kansas City Leyland made the decision that 2013 would be his last year as skipper, whether he guided the Tigers to their first World Series victory under his tenure a month later or not. Speaking six weeks after that night, the plainspoken, gray-haired 68-year-old stayed good to his word: "I’ve told most all of you in the past when it's time, it's time," he said. "It’s time. It's time to step down from the managerial position of the Detroit Tigers." With those words, the career of one of the most unique characters in franchise history came to a close. The Jim Leyland era was over. But the Jim Leyland legacy has only just begun.

The Jim Leyland era is over. But the Jim Leyland legacy has only just begun.

"My moments here are priceless," Leyland said, speaking on his final day as the team’s manager. "To be in that Tigers dugout, see all the fans, see all the celebrations. It’s been absolutely fantastic." Eight years is a long time to manage the same team. In the Tigers’ history, just two other managers have stuck around for more games. Sparky Anderson spent an amazing 17 seasons in Detroit, taking over the club in 1979 and guiding it to a World Series victory in 1984 before finishing the final decade with just one additional playoff appearance. Hughie Jennings is lesser known, though his name came up recently due to the accomplishments of Leyland. Leading the Tigers for 14 years from 1907 through 1920, Jennings was in charge the only other time in franchise history the Tigers made baseball’s postseason three consecutive years. Those years were 1907-09, and a club with Ty Cobb in its lineup had no World Series victories to show for it. Then we have Leyland, who took over the Tigers after a disappointing 2005 season cost Alan Trammell his managerial job. Leyland didn’t do what Sparky did, or Steve O’Neill did, or Mickey Cochrane did; that is, bring a World Series title to Detroit. But Leyland’s spot in franchise history is just as sure as any of theirs, and that’s because of what he did during his first six months after being named the team’s manager in October 2005.

You can’t give Leyland all the credit for the team’s success over the past eight years, of course, for this golden era in Tigers history. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski have stocked the roster with several of the best players fans in Detroit have ever watched represent them. Justin Verlander has won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. Miguel Cabrera has been named MVP as well after earning the sport’s first Triple Crown in 45 years. But before Verlander, before Cabrera, before we knew how this story would turn out, there was Leyland and a team that didn’t know how to take the next step. "I came here to make talent a team," Leyland later said. And that’s just what he did.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY

At his core, Leyland is a bit of a softy, more emotional than he’d like to be. He became choked up on more than one occasion when speaking of the fans of the team or of his emotions regarding the players. Famously, he cried when speaking about Don Kelly’s home run in the ALDS in 2011. It’s thought that he always keeps an underdog on his roster as an emotional lift and as his way of helping a player do what Leyland, a career .222 hitter in the minor leagues, never could: reach the big leagues. "I'm going to miss the players," Leyland said upon retirement, fighting back the emotion he promised he wouldn’t show in his final press conference as manager. "I'm going to miss the people I worked with." But to get to that emotional core, you first have to get through one of the tougher exteriors in the game. It’s that very dichotomy that made the Tigers the team they are today.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY

"I want to see a fight once in a while. I want to see someone mad at me, throw a stool. You can't make guys do this. I'm concerned."

The Tigers hadn’t had a winning season in 12 years when Leyland took over and hadn’t finished better than third place in 14. They were just two seasons removed from a 119-loss season in which they narrowly avoided recording more losses than any team in major-league history.

They had some franchise players -- Ivan Rodriguez signed in 2004, Magglio Ordonez in 2005, contracts of convenience for players whose maladies would otherwise keep them from earning the kind of paychecks they desired, and the Tigers a club that had to overpay to dig out of the hole created during a decade of mistakes -- added to veteran leadership in Kenny Rogers, strength up the middle with Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco, and interesting prospects like Justin Verlander and Curtis Granderson.

That gave Leyland some clay to work with when he went south to Lakeland during the opening months of 2006. He immediately started to shape it, not unsurprisingly in his own image. "This team, has no personality, no charisma," he said. "It has got good players; the nicest guys you'll ever meet. I wish I had a couple of more assholes and people [who] would rant and rave more." He continued: "I want to see a fight once in a while. I want to see someone mad at me, throw a stool. You can't make guys do this. I'm concerned."

Leyland wanted swagger. He wanted the Tigers to play take the field like the Yankees, feeling confident the game was theirs to win and that’s what they’d do. Instead he had a team that could play with anyone, but only until the stakes got too high. Then they’d fold. Leyland had folded once, but he wasn't about to do it again.

Leyland had his own reasons for swagger. Before he flamed out as the Rockies manager, he won a World Series in 1997 with the Florida Marlins, a team led by the likes of Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Edgar Renteria and with a rotation led by Kevin Brown. And before that ring, Leyland won three straight NL East titles as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Leyland, too, knew a thing about hard-nosed players, the kind who may be hard to manage but you want them on the field playing for your team rather than against it. Famously during spring training in 1991, the middle year in Pittsburgh’s trio of success, Leyland went head to head with his best player in a video shown countless times since. "Don’t fuck with me," Leyland said in Bonds’ face. "I’ve had enough of this fucking shit. … I’m the fucking manager of this fucking team. If you don’t want to be here, get your fucking ass out of here and quit."

Mets manager Terry Collins, who was then a coach in the Pirates organization, stood only a few feet away,witnessing it all. "Jim Leyland was all about respecting the game of baseball," Collins told the New York Daily News 20 years later. "Respecting it to the max. He always said, ‘When you can’t give your all, get out. This game demands the best you’ve got.’" Those who knew Leyland wouldn’t have been surprised by his outburst. In 1978, as a 33-year-old, he put the then 21-year-old Kirk Gibson in his place pretty quick, telling him "I don't care how much you're making or what you did in football or college baseball. I'm the manager here. You'll do what I say and do it every day! Is that understood?" But if you play the game the right way, and respect the game, you’ll have an ally in Leyland. "People who aren't around him don't see how much fun he's actually having and how easy he is to play for," Todd Jones once said. "If you prepare and play hard and get beat, he's OK. If you're not ready, he's going to have issues." That is what Leyland brought to Detroit in the winter months as 2005 turned to 2006 and spring training transitioned into the regular season.

It was not easy to shake all the losing the Tigers had done before Leyland’s arrival, and in April when the team looked like it had stopped being the nice guy Washington Generals and started being the league’s assholes, there was a relapse. Detroit opened the season 5-0, winning games with scores of 14-3, 10-6 and 7-0. That was followed by four straight losses, and after a 10-2 loss in Cleveland on April 17, Leyland had seen enough. "We stunk and that's not good enough," he told the press minutes after an explosive closed-door meeting with the team. "This stuff has been going on here before and it's not going to happen here. We had a chance to take a series. I'm not talking about anyone in particular. I'm talking about the team, myself, the coaches, and everybody else included. It's my responsibility to have the team ready to play today, and they weren't ready to play. They were ready to get on the plane and go to Oakland. If they won it was OK and if they lost it was OK. That's not good enough."

"If they won it was OK and if they lost it was OK. That's not good enough."

There would be periods of time when the Tigers weren’t good enough during Leyland’s years, such as when a team bound for the World Series in 2008 finished instead in the basement of the division, or in 2009 when they held a three-game lead in the Central Division with four games to go in the season, yet failed to close the deal and missed the playoffs after giving up the lead in the extra innings of Game 163. But that team of nice guys was never the same again in 2006. The rant became a thing of legend, to be hearkened back to each time the team showed a bit of struggle. In little more than six months after being introduced as manager of the Detroit Tigers, Leyland molded the team in his image as one of the nicest assholes in baseball. They went 52-23 in the first half, knocked off the Yankees in the ALDS in the famous "JV vs. the varsity" contest, swept the A’s in four games in the ALCS and brought the World Series back to Detroit for the first time since 1984.

Jim Leyland might disagree with praise, bat away the credit given to him. Ask him about team chemistry or his role with the team and you’re just teeing him up for verbal batting practice. "I don't believe in chemistry," he said once. "Show me a winning team, and I'll show you a good clubhouse. Show me a losing team, and I'll show you a horseshit clubhouse. I've gone to chapel with them and eaten with them, and we've lost 100 games. I've had 'em all hate me and want to punch me in the nose, and we've won 100. I'll take talent. I don't buy all that other stuff." Or another time, when asked about his role in turning the franchise around in 2006: "I've done nothing. I picked a good staff. And I picked a good job. That pretty much sums it up." Ask him about his lasting legacy, and you might get a response like this one, also from 2006: "They didn't need me when I got here. And they won't need me when I'm gone. If they can play, they can play. Fortunately, they can play."

But Leyland’s wrong to sell himself short. Through eight years as Tigers manager, his teams won 700 games, earned two American League pennants, earned three consecutive AL Central Division titles and made the postseason four times. The team may never have won a World Series under his leadership, but Leyland -- by never being afraid to show a little emotion, refusing to back down, and taking a team of losers and turning them into winners -- sparked a baseball renaissance in Detroit and reignited the city’s passion for the game. Today, announcements of sellout crowds and seasons of 3 million attendance are the norm. That's a credit to Leyland. "I came here to change the team," Leyland said, eight years after his arrival. "I think we’ve done that. I’m happy to be a small part in that." That will forever be Jim Leyland's legacy in Detroit.

Photo credit: Ronald Martinez

Producer: Justin Bopp | Editors: HookSlide and Patrick OKennedy | Title Photo: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY

About the Author

Kurt has blogged about the Tigers since 2006 in one form or another and has helped direct Bless You Boys since 2010. He is a senior editor for SB Nation.