Not everyone in Detroit loved the skipper. Some questioned the way he managed his pitchers. Some took issue with his unwillingness to play small-ball. Some screamed about the way he would defend his stars, even when they were producing poorly. Still others fumed about the way he trusted “heart” and the feel he got from a ballplayer over the advanced statistics currently taking over baseball.
For better or worse, Tigers manager Jim Leyland retired this weekend. And, whether you loved him, hated him, or, like myself just put blind faith in decisions you couldn’t quite make sense of, you owe Jimmy Smokes a thank you.
I’d be lying if I tried to claim I really remember the pre-Leyland Tigers. I certainly attended games at the old Tiger Stadium. I vaguely remember my dad being excited about Alan Trammell’s hiring. And there is certainly a part of me that remembers losing 119 in 2003, the most in American League history, two years before Jim Leyland was hired.
The rebuilding process began before Leyland showed up, but by 2005 it became clear that while General Manager Dave Dombrowski could be the architect, Trammell was not the man who was meant to lead the Tigers into a new era. Dombo called in his old friend, Leyland; the two had won a World Series together, leading the Marlins in 1997.
The magic was not immediate. The team struggled through April 2006, before Leyland gave the infamous press conference that changed baseball in Detroit. After a 10-2 loss at Comerica Park, Jim berated his team, saying “We stunk. Period.” It was the spark the team needed.
The rest I remember quite well: the Tigers won 28 of the next 35. Justin Verlander won AL Rookie of the Year, backing up ace Kenny Rogers. Joel Zumaya had his single, magical season. Curtis Granderson had his coming out party.
And, on a cold October night in Detroit, Magglio Ordonez hit a walk-off homer to secure the Tigers sweep of the Oakland A’s, sending Detroit to its first World Series since 1984. Leyland had, in a single season, secured his spot on the Tigers bench and in Detroiters’ hearts for as long as he wanted it.
It was not always easy. The Tigers would spend the next four seasons falling short of the playoffs, and Leyland took much of the blame. Detroiters complained he wasn’t willing to switch around his lineups, he made poor pinch-hitting calls, any charge that could be made against him was.
Once we started making the playoffs again, I began defending Leyland absolutely. “Is it working?” I would say, when he released a lineup with Don Kelly hitting second, or pulled Justin Verlander in the sixth, and compared to what we were used to, even the staunchest sabermetrician had to admit that, yes, it was working.
There was plenty for Leyland’s harshest critics to dislike in his final game, a 5-2 loss to the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the ALCS that ended the Tigers’ playoff run. Maybe he should have left Max Scherzer in. Maybe he shouldn’t have pinch ran Don Kelly. Maybe Prince Fielder’s base-running gaffe could somehow be blamed on management.
But, with a long winter looming and a managerial vacancy in Detroit, it’s better that we remember what Leyland accomplished here. Jim Leyland took a team on the cusp of mediocrity and made it great. He established a winning tradition in Detroit, finally allowing our Tigers to join the discussion of the great teams with the Red Sox and the Cardinals, after years of being mentioned in the same breath as the Royals and Blue Jays.
Leyland brought back the wins. Leyland brought back the fans. And if glossy magazine covers and tired sportswriting clichés are to be believed, Leyland brought back the city.
Thank you, Jim Leyland. Thank you for bringing our team back to us.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Ward via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.
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