Cook: After slow start, Leyland soars
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You think the talk shows were tough on the Pirates this summer? You should have heard 'em ripping on the Tigers in Detroit.
"Let's go to Joe in Lincoln Park ... "
"What's wrong with [Jim] Leyland? Doesn't he know anything about managing? The Tigers are never going to win with him. He can't settle on a lineup. Why does he play Don Kelly so much? There's no way this team should be this bad. They spent all that money for this?"
And Jim Leyland's response?
"I'm 67 years old. I don't give a [bleep] what Joe in Lincoln Park says."
This was the other day, not long after the Tigers swept the New York Yankees into the offseason to advance to the World Series, beginning Wednesday night in San Francisco. Sorry, Joe, it turns out the team can win with Leyland. The funny thing is, he's being called a genius in Detroit this week after being called an idiot all summer.
Leyland might be in the back nine of life, but he's still plenty strong enough to deal with his critics. He received a lot of heat here, for failing to get the Pirates to the World Series despite three consecutive division titles in the early-1990s, then for bailing on the team after the '96 season even though owner Kevin McClatchy was thrilled to get rid of his big contract. He also was criticized for doing a lousy job with the Colorado Rockies in '99, criticism he said was well-deserved because his heart wasn't in his work. He quit the Rockies and left millions behind in his contract.
But Leyland took a frightful beating this season. The Tigers signed free-agent Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract in the offseason, pushing their payroll to more than $132 million, fifth highest in Major League Baseball. But the team started slowly and was 26-32 June 9. It looked as if it was going to fall short in the American League Central Division, trailing the Chicago White Sox by three games Sept. 19.
"Bob from Southfield, you're up ... "
"Leyland has got to go. The game has passed him by. I'll never go to another Tigers game as long as he's the manager."
"People panicked," Leyland said. "Their expectations aren't realistic. They think because you signed some good players, you're automatically supposed to win. It's not that easy. Other teams have good players, too. It's not easy to win games ...
"I told them, 'Let's play it out. If, after 162 games, we don't make it, I'll be the first to say we underachieved. But we still have a 10th of our schedule left. Let it play out. Let's see what happens.' "
The Tigers won the Central by going 10-5 down the stretch while the White Sox went 4-11. They took out the Oakland Athletics in five games in the divisional round of the playoffs. They embarrassed the Yankees in the ALCS.
The Tigers did it with a starting rotation -- led by the great Justin Verlander -- that has been virtually unhittable in the postseason. They did it with an offense led by Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. And, not insignificantly, they did it with Leyland pushing all of the right buttons, especially with his bullpen after closer Jose Valverde became a liability in the playoffs.
Leyland wanted to talk only about the pitching and, especially, Cabrera.
"I've never seen an offensive player like him. I had [Barry] Bonds before he was at his peak. But this guy, he has the best opposite-field power of anyone who ever played the game. I'm not talking about pull power. I'm talking opposite-field power. He can hit the ball out to right-center better than any human being who ever lived ...
"They're saying he might not win the MVP. A guy who won the Triple Crown on a team that's going to the World Series. How can that be? That just can't happen."
The Tigers are in position to make Leyland just the third manager in baseball history to win world championships in each league. Sparky Anderson did it with the Cincinnati Reds and the Tigers. Tony La Russa did it with the Athletics and the St. Louis Cardinals, his second of three titles coming in 2006 when the Cardinals beat Leyland's Tigers in five games in the World Series. Leyland won it all with the Florida Marlins in 1997.
"This might sound silly, but I want to win it for our owner," Leyland said of Mike Ilitch. "Don't get me wrong. I want to win it for me, too. I'm selfish. But I already got one. I want to be the guy that gets to hand him the trophy. He's 83 years old and he's given his heart and soul to Detroit. He won championships with the Red Wings, but he's never done it with the Tigers. That's his passion, to win one with us."
A second world championship might not be enough to get Leyland to the Hall of Fame, but it would reinforce the argument here: He is the best manager of my lifetime. I've never been around anyone who does it better. I'm not alone in that thinking. Check out what Terry Francona told the Detroit Free Press about Leyland this summer. Francona won two World Series as the Boston Red Sox manager and took the Cleveland Indians job earlier this month. "Jim Leyland is the gold standard. Period. My generation of managers -- I'm 53 -- all got into this game wanting to be him."
Leyland appreciates the accolades. But they are not what drive him. "That kind of stuff isn't important to me. It never has been and never will be. I don't need to be manager of the year. Been there and done that. I just like to compete."
That should be enough to bring Leyland back next season -- win or lose in the World Series. His contract is up, but, according to Tigers president Dave Dombrowski, "He knows he's welcome back."
"I'm really not sure what I'm going to do," Leyland said. "I'll probably be back. But we'll see."
You might guess that Leyland's future is a big topic on the Detroit talk shows.
"Let's go to Troy in Dearborn ... "
"What are the Tigers waiting for? Why haven't they given Leyland a new contract? They've got to keep that guy. He's terrific."
First Published October 23, 2012 12:00 am