Leyland earns right to carve his own path
DETROIT -- No matter what happens in the World Series, the Detroit Tigers have already done enough to ensure Jim Leyland's return as manager.
This is precisely as it should be. Leyland has earned the right not only to further employment but to go out on his own terms.
Game 3 of the Series will be played Saturday night at Comerica Park with the Tigers trailing the San Francisco Giants, 2-0. But the Tigers have trailed before.
That was the problem earlier this year, when Leyland's managerial future seemed to be not at all secure. The Tigers had won the American League Central by 15 games in 2011. Then they added, at considerable expense, slugging first baseman Prince Fielder. Obviously, they were locks to reach the postseason again. The only reasonable question seemed to be their margin of victory over the remainder of the division.
Instead, the Tigers spent most of the summer looking up in the standings at the Chicago White Sox. The description most often attached to them was no longer "favorites." It was "underachievers." Leyland's critics were legion.
Leyland maintained his faith in his team, steadfastly, firmly, even as fan frustration with the Tigers mounted. It was Leyland's belief that the Tigers' ability would eventually prevail. That position became somewhat lonely at times, but he was not wrong.
"Well, we did this last year," Leyland said. "We kind of floundered around and last year at the end we made a good run and kind of pulled away. This year we were behind and trying to catch up. We finally caught up and then eked in.
"Yeah, I think good teams, and we are a good team obviously, they're going to play good at some point, and we ended up kind of floundering around all year long; we played good, didn't play good, played good, didn't play good, and then finally played good at the right time."
The Tigers managed to make enough of a move to overtake the fading White Sox. And after that, there was a compelling Division Series over the Oakland A's, and then a dominant run of Detroit pitching in a magnificent four-game AL Championship Series sweep over the New York Yankees.
After the sweep, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said that Leyland was welcome to return as manager, and that he expected him to return. Leyland has deflected questions on this topic, in order to keep the focus on the task at hand.
Leyland, a veteran of nearly five decades in the game, has been a big league manager for 21 seasons. He was twice voted National League Manager of the Year. He won a World Series championship with the Florida Marlins in 1997. Leyland also won the AL Manager of the Year in 2006, when he took the Tigers to the World Series, the team's first postseason appearance in 19 years.
He has won the respect of his players, throughout his managerial career. They find him genuine, honest and supportive.
"Jim obviously has been around for a long time and knows the game inside and out," starting pitcher Doug Fister said. "He's one of those guys that never wavers. He's got our back, we've got his back the whole time. He sets a precedent for us.
"It's a team atmosphere; it's a family atmosphere out there in the clubhouse and on the field, and that's what he shows from first pitch to last pitch. He's constantly thinking about what can we do to gain an edge and be able to play the best ball that we can. And so I think he really just leads us."
"Jim Leyland is, for me, a really good manager," shortstop Jhonny Peralta said. "He gives a lot of confidence to the guys. This is the one thing that he does more than everything. He's an unbelievable manager. He's happy every day. Every day he wants to win the game, so he makes everybody happy."
Leyland has the basics of the job completely in hand. "Honesty is the best policy," he says, on the topic of delivering bad news to players. "Tell it like it is.
"I think the biggest responsibility that any manager has is to make sure his players are ready to play on a daily basis, and if you achieve that as a manager, I think you've done your job.
"I think the hardest part is probably dealing with the media, and I don't mean that disrespectful. It takes a lot of time; you're answering a lot of questions. You're questioned a lot, you're second-guessed a lot. The fun part is normally the game."
After all this time, Leyland, closing in on age 68, still retains every bit of his enthusiasm for the game. That is particularly true in the case of pursuing another World Series championship.
"Yeah, just because you're fortunate to be on a team that won one, I think that's why you want another one," Leyland says. "You realize how good the feeling is, and obviously that's why you'd like to have another one, being a part of another world championship would be quite a treat, obviously."
Up or down in the standings, baseball is better off with Jim Leyland in the game. The Tigers have played more than well enough for him to stay on as manager. He has earned over the years the right to exit the game at a time of his own choosing.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.