Jim Leyland's retirement a big loss for baseball

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Baseball is just a little bit worse today than it was Sunday. Jim Leyland is out of the game, at least as a manager. It’s a huge loss for the sport. You don’t think so? Read what future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa once said: “Jim Leyland is the most perfect baseball manager I’ve ever been around.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Pittsburgh was lucky to have Leyland for 11 seasons from 1986-96. He joined a franchise and took over a team that nearly was destroyed by the Pittsburgh drug trials of the mid-1980s. The 1985 Pirates lost 104 games. By 1990, Leyland had the team in position to win three consecutive division titles. Before this season, his 1992 team was the most recent Pirates club to have a winning record and play in the playoffs.

Former Pirates general manager Syd Thrift, a terrific baseball man but a bit of an egomaniac, liked to take credit for the turnaround. “It ain’t easy resurrecting the dead,” he once said, famously. But it was Leyland, who did the heavy lifting. He was a master of his craft. No one knew the game better. It was nearly impossible to question his strategy. No one related to players better. It didn’t matter if you were Barry Bonds with the Pirates or Don Kelly with the Detroit Tigers. Leyland knew how to make you a better player.

Detroit was just as lucky to have Leyland for eight seasons from 2006-13. The Tigers lost 91 games in 2005, their 12th consecutive losing season. Under Leyland, they went to the 2006 World Series, losing in five games to the St. Louis Cardinals, who were managed by La Russa.

That 2006 postseason was fascinating for a couple of reasons. The Tigers lost the first game of the American League Division Series to the powerful New York Yankees, prompting many in the media to write them off. That irked Leyland, who said, defiantly, “It’s not like we brought the junior varsity.” The Tigers won the next three games against the Yankees to advance before sweeping the Oakland Athletics in the American League Championship Series.

The 2006 World Series took on added significance because Leyland and La Russa were trying to become just the second manager, along with Sparky Anderson, to win titles in each league. La Russa had won with the 1989 Athletics. Leyland won with the 1997 Florida Marlins.

Leyland never did get that second championship. The Tigers won the past three American League Central Division titles but were beaten by the Texas Rangers in the 2011 ALCS, by the San Francisco Giants in the 2012 World Series and by the Boston Red Sox in the just completed ALCS. The Tigers led the Red Sox, 5-1, in the eighth inning of Game 2 and, 2-1, in the seventh inning of Game 6 only to lose each game after giving up a grand slam.

“This one hurt bad, because I thought we let one get away,” Leyland told the Detroit media Monday.

Leyland told his players after the Game 6 loss late Saturday night that he wasn’t coming back as manager.

“I didn’t know how to take it when there was clapping,” he said. The man’s sense of humor is wonderful. He loves to poke fun at people, especially himself.

“It’s time,” Leyland said, turning serious.

The Hall of Fame should be next for Leyland. His 1,769 wins as a manager rank 15th in baseball history. Another world championship would have made him a lock, but his body of work with the Pirates, Marlins and Tigers should get him to Cooperstown.

Leyland still lives in the Pittsburgh area and probably always will. He loves this city. One of his regrets is not getting the Pirates to a World Series. Everyone talks about the Sid Bream slide in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series, but it was the 1991 Pirates who broke Leyland’s heart. He believes that was his best team here, but it ran into Atlanta pitchers Steve Avery and John Smoltz in Games 6 and 7 of the NLCS.

Leyland still might be managing the Pirates if new owner Kevin McClatchy hadn’t cut the payroll to the bare bone. Leyland was due to make $1 million in 1997. The team’s payroll that season was $9 million. McClatchy was thrilled when Leyland moved on to Florida.

The idea that Leyland quit on the Pirates is absolute garbage.

The only organization Leyland quit on was the Colorado Rockies. By his admission, he did a lousy job managing them to a 72-90 record in 1999. His heart wasn’t in his work. He walked away, leaving $4.5 million on the table. This is strictly a guess, but Rockies management had to appreciate that more than Leyland staying on and, in his mind, stealing money.

For most of the next six seasons, Leyland scouted for the Cardinals and his good pal, La Russa. It’s a crying shame the Pirates didn’t bring him back in some capacity. If you’re an owner, don’t you want his wise old eyes looking at your players?

The Tigers were smart enough to convince Leyland to manage again, not that it was difficult. He was refreshed and energized.

“I was embarrassed by what happened in Colorado,” Leyland said. “I didn’t want to go out that way. It killed me. I needed to come back for me.”

Now, fittingly, Leyland, who turns 69 Dec. 15, can leave the game without shame. He gave the Tigers everything he had. Just as he did with the Pirates.

I can’t speak for Detroit, but I know this: Leyland was the best manager Pittsburgh ever had.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Vinnie and Cook” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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