DETROIT--Sporting a new pair of blue shoes with white laces, former Tigers manager Jim Leyland shared a joke with the assembled media. But when it came time to speak to the fans gathered at Comerica Park, he was unable to hold back his emotions. Leyland only lasted about 10 seconds before tearing up behind his sunglasses in front of a sellout crowd on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
The former Tigers manager was able to keep it together in an interview session prior to the game, which honored his legacy. Yet, even in a room crammed with members of the media, the gruff voice of Jim Leyland's cracked momentarily.
"Well I didn't want all this hoopla to be honest with you, I really didn't." Leyland said. "I certainly didn't ask for anything like this, but it certainly means a lot to me to think that the Tigers thought enough of me to bring me back. It does give me one chance to say thank you in person to the fans because everything happened so fast last year that I really didn't get a chance to thank them, so I'm going to briefly do that today."
Leyland did just that, and justly received a roaring standing ovation. But he would not allow anyone to give him all the credit for the team he helped turn into a winning franchise after 12 consecutive losing seasons.
"As I've said before, I was a small part of that," Leyland said. "I think that all started with Mr. Ilitch, as does this team. You're never going to have better ownership than Mike Ilitch, it just doesn't happen. I think one thing that we did accomplish when I was here was we changed talent to team. I said that when I retired last year and I think that's one of the things I'm most proud of."
During his eight years as the Tigers skipper, Leyland took the Tigers into the postseason four times and made two World Series appearances. But the lasting memories he gave Tigers fans along the way were what made his tenure so special.
"It was a great run. The missing piece is the World Series trophy so it will be forever held against us, but it was such a wonderful run for everybody," Leyland said. "When I talk about a wonderful run I'm talking sponsors, season ticket holders, organization, players, managers, coaches, fans. It was just a great run for everybody. And that's the thing I look back on and I enjoyed the most."
The record he compiled as the Tigers manager was impressive and it's something Leyland happily admitted to. "I'm proud of it, I am. I was the manager for the Detroit Tigers. They've been in operation since 1901. I was a part of that and to be the third winningest manager and go to the postseason more than any other manager, falling short of the World Series hurts a little bit but it was a pretty good run."
But if Leyland could have gone back and decided to remain the manager rather than seek retirement, his decision would have remained the same. "I'm doing great, I really am. I have no second thoughts at all, I'm very happy," he said.
Coming to the stadium and being able to spend time with the players on Saturday was still special, and one thing was noticably different in the clubhouse. "I got a lot of hugs today," Leyland said. "The guys couldn't have been greater, Brad's been absolutely so respectful it's unbelievable, and it was great. It doesn't smell like smoke in there (clubhouse) at all anymore."
The upside of being the special assistant to Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski was the change in pace, something Leyland is more than thankful for. "Well, it's less strenuous, to be honest with you, I have no media sessions," Leyland said. "Dave's been great. He told me just kind of pick and choose what you want to do. I like it, because you're still kind of a part of it, but you're way back in the background. At my age, that's where I belong."
In the end, Leyland gave the credit to the fans, acknowledging that while other teams can say they have great fans, Tigers fans take it a step further. "These are the best fans, as far as the knowledge of baseball. I think they weren't always satisfied with some of my decisions, as were some of you (the media)."
"I think they did realize my heart and soul was in it, I didn't shortchange ‘em, I gave 'em a good day's work for certainly a good day's pay thanks to Mr. Ilitch. All in all I think it was a great relationship and I'll never forget this."