Jim Leyland: The best

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It has been my good fortune and misfortune to have dealt with dozens of coaches and managers -- professional and college -- in my time as a reporter/columnist for two metropolitan Pittsburgh dailies, one wire service and one student newspaper.

From Harry Walker to John Russell; from Chuck Noll to Mike Tomlin; from Red Kelly to Michel Therrien; from John Michelosen to Dave Wannstedt; from Bob Timmons to Jamie Dixon and from Ed McCluskey to Art Walker Jr. -- to cover most of them -- I’ve reported on the great, near-great and not-so great.

I have some terrific remembrances of Danny Murtaugh, Chuck Tanner, Buzz Ridl, Jackie Sherrill, Roy Chipman, Tim Grgurich and Bill Virdon.

But I do not have to spend a second thinking who among all those men was my favorite both from a professional and personal standpoint. It was Jim Leyland, who managed the Pirates from 1986-96. Leyland, 68, retired from managing the Detroit Tigers yesterday, and from what I’ve read did so -- to the amazement of anyone who knew him -- without shedding a tear.

Before going further, let me say that I was not around Chuck Noll or Johnny Majors when they were in their prime. I was covering the Pirates when Noll took the Steelers to everlasting greatness and when Majors won a national championship at Pitt.

I never got to know Noll well, which was partially due to my personality and largely due to his. He wanted it that way, although he was more accessible than are NFL coaches of this era. I got to know Majors in his second stint at Pitt, which was as unsuccessful as his first one was successful. He remains an all-time favorite in any category. A grander gentleman you’d never meet.

But Leyland -- and this is strictly by my reckoning -- was in a class by himself. I dare anyone to find somebody in baseball who has a bad word for him. As far as knowing the game, the great Tony La Russa, who holds his own opinion in the highest regard, on more than one occasion has said that Leyland was his strategic superior.

But Leyland was so modest, so unassuming, so much the common man and so much the motivator and master handler of players than his strategic excellence had to be uncovered. That he did not do himself particularly proud with some of his moves in the recently completed ALCS, which the Tigers lost in six games to Boston, had nothing to do with his retirement but if anyone knew he might be losing half a step and knew it back in September when he made the decision, it would be Leyland.

If I thought I knew a little bit about baseball before Leyland became manager of the Pirates, I soon found out I didn’t. He opened my eyes to levels of baseball strategy I didn’t know existed. It might be a stretch to say he always had time, but it wouldn’t be to say he almost always had time.

It was Leyland who first revealed, for example, why some seemingly successful players weren’t in the lineup every day: Because to do so would rob them of their effectiveness. It’s called overexposure. Or as Leyland would put it, ''You don’t want to use him too much.’’

One day in 1990 on a Pirates road trip, I sat down next to Leyland in the dugout -- you could do that virtually every day -- and told him I wanted to talk about Neal Heaton, who was 8-2 at the time, late June, and shortly to be named to the All-Star team.

''Don’t get too excited about Neal Heaton,’’ Leyland told me.

Properly advised, I backed off the story. Heaton finished 12-9.

One of the things Leyland didn’t like about Heaton was the fact -- and no one talked about this at the time -- he didn’t go deep enough into games. He caused Leyland to use his bullpen too early and too often, which deprived him of the flexibility he loved in mixing and matching his relievers against opposing hitters.

It pains me to this day that there are smart people out there who hold it against Leyland for leaving the Pirates. Some people, not the smart ones, actually think he walked out on a winner. He stuck with the Pirates for four losing seasons, as one good to great player after another left the team. When he was told late in the 1996 season that a full-bore rebuilding would take place, which would strip the team of what little remained, he asked out. And because of who he was and what he had done, the request was granted.

In tribute to Leyland, Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander tweeted this comment in response to the retirement announcement: ''What an honor playing my first 8 years with Jim Leyland. A great manager and an even better person.’’

With those remarks, he spoke for a lot of ballplayers -- and a lot of sports writers.

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