Cook: A special manager has his team at a special place
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By next weekend, if things go as expected and Detroit beats St. Louis in the World Series that starts tonight at Detroit's Comerica Park, the baseball world will know what Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and at least one of us here figured out a long time ago.
"Jim Leyland," La Russa said several years back, "is the most perfect baseball manager I've ever been around."
One of the best of all time, too.
Even Leyland's most stubborn critics, who always will hold a misguided grudge against him because he left the Pirates a decade ago, will have to recognize his special place in the game if his Tigers take out the Cardinals. A lot of managers have won a World Series -- somebody does every season -- but only 21 have won two or more championships. Leyland would be No. 22. That would separate him from five of the 16 managers in the Hall of Fame and from three of the top nine managers with the most wins, including La Russa .
Leyland and La Russa -- best friends since Leyland was La Russa's third-base coach with the Chicago White Sox from 1982-85 -- also are chasing an even rarer piece of baseball history. One will join Sparky Anderson as the only managers to win a World Series in both the American and National Leagues. Leyland won with the 1997 Florida Marlins, La Russa the '89 Oakland Athletics.
When told this week about what's at stake, Leyland's reaction was typically blunt and profane.
"I don't care about any of that [stuff]. I just want to win the World Series. I don't care if it puts me in a special place in the record books. I just want my team to be the champions of 2006."
Absolutely no one expected Leyland and the Tigers to be in this position this quickly. The team had been almost Pirates-like, losing 91 games last season, its 12th consecutive losing season. Even Leyland said he would have been thrilled if the Tigers had finished a game or two over .500. "I was thinking we would get in there and professionalize 'em, show 'em the right way to go about their business and take our shot next year."
Maybe it happened faster than anyone imagined, but you just knew Leyland was going to be successful with the Tigers. He performed a similar resurrection with the Pirates, taking over a team that lost 104 games in 1985 and leading it to its only four winning seasons in the past 23 years, including three consecutive division championships in the early 1990s. It's sad to think he'd probably still be here if Kevin McClatchy hadn't traded his team out from under him in '96.
It's not just Leyland's phenomenal grip on the intricacies of baseball strategy that makes him so good, although you could go a whole season and not question more than two of his moves. It's the way he works his clubhouse. He makes it a point to speak to every player every day. Usually, it's just a passing word -- obscene and humorous, no doubt -- as he makes his way around the field during batting practice, fungo bat in hand. But when a more in-depth conversation is needed -- either as a supportive pat on the back or a motivating kick in the rear -- he's there to provide that, too. Early this season, he tore into one of his players in front of the rest of the team after he felt the player showed up third base coach Gene Lamont.
Does that remind you of Leyland's blowup with Barry Bonds in the spring of '91 or what?
"I really didn't do anything different from what I did in Pittsburgh," Leyland said. "I just told 'em, 'I don't have all the answers, but I know the right way to do things. If you don't like it, go somewhere else ...'
"What did I have to lose? What were they going to do? Fire me and send me home with the kids? That wouldn't be such a bad thing, would it?"
Like always, Leyland found the right message for his team at the right time.
After an early season loss in which Leyland felt his players went through the motions, he lit into them. "I never ask 'em to win. I only ask that they prepare to win."
After another early loss when the players were hanging their heads, Leyland lit into them again in a much different way. "All that feeling sorry for themselves only showed me they were a losing team. Winners know they're going to win tomorrow."
After the Tigers limped to the regular-season finish line by going 19-31, Leyland was a source of strength. "We're no fluke team. We ended up winning two less games than the New York Yankees."
After the Tigers were beaten by the powerful Yankees in Game 1 of their divisional playoff series and were written off by everybody, Leyland was defiant. "It's not like we brought the junior varsity."
The Tigers haven't lost since, stunning the Yankees and sweeping the Athletics, winning seven consecutive games, the past six by three or more runs.
The man has some touch.
Leyland's players know it and showed it by carrying him off the field after they beat the Yankees, something that's hardly ever done in baseball. Then again, if memory serves, the Pirates also carried Leyland off after those three division titles.
This is a special man, a special manager.
How much different Leyland must have felt on his players' shoulders at Comerica Park than he did on the day in '99 when he announced he was quitting as the Colorado Rockies' manager after just one season. He wasn't himself then, had burned out on the job and felt like he was stealing money.
How the critics harped then. They pointed out how Leyland bailed on the Rockies just as he had the Marlins and Pirates. What they never mentioned and still don't is how McClatchy encouraged Leyland to leave Pittsburgh and take his $1 million salary with him, how Leyland stayed with the Marlins through a 54-108 season in '98 after management had cut payroll to the bare bone and how he left behind $4.5 million when he walked in Colorado.
"I'm no jumper," Leyland once said, a fact supported by the 18 years he spent in the Tigers' minor-league system and the 11 seasons he spent with the Pirates.
But that's a fight Leyland never will win. He accepted that long ago. "My career is what it is. I don't care what anyone else thinks." What he couldn't come to peace with was the way he left the game as a manager. He kept trying to tell himself and everyone else that he was happy as a scout -- "If I manage anything again, it will be a K-mart," he said as recently as the summer of '04 -- but you had the sense he didn't really believe it.
"I didn't want to go out that way," Leyland said this week. "I was embarrassed by what happened in Colorado. It killed me.
"I needed to come back for me."
Leyland was hurt when the Philadelphia Phillies didn't hire him after the '04 season, then hurt again when the Pirates didn't consider him after the '05 season. It's safe to say the Phillies' and Pirates' loss is the Tigers' gain. Detroit's team is just four wins away from completing one of sports' all-time great success stories.
"It's all because of the players," Leyland said.
First Published October 21, 2006 12:00 am