I’ve felt this way about a Detroit sports team before. Clearly, you can see the talent on this team. You can see the potential rippling, like the bubbles on water’s surface before a whale emerges. They are thisclose to being a World Series team, the kind of team whose composition leaves open the possibility of multiple playoff appearances. But there’s something missing. This 2012 Tigers team reminds me all too well of the 2002-2003 Detroit Pistons.
The whole issue with the squad wasn’t the talent present. They had the league’s best rebounder/defensive player in Ben Wallace. They had one of the league’s best shooters and leaders in Chauncey Billups. They had Tayshaun Prince, Mehmet Okur, Rip Hamilton, and Corliss Williamson. Oh, they had talent. Their problem was that their coach, Rick Carlyle, had simply done all he could do with the team. He had guided the team back to respectability after it had plunged into mediocrity, but he could only lead them to the gate of the Promised Land.
Enter Larry Brown. The Pistons hired a coach who had previous championship experience (NCAA), and who knew how to craft a strategy to work with the current NBA style of play. They also brought in a big talent in Rasheed Wallace, and lo and behold, a championship-caliber team toppled a flashier squad for a title and consistently made it to the playoffs for several years after.
I see that in the Detroit Tigers right now. In a funny way, Jim Leyland could have been thought to be that Larry Brown-type coach back in 2006. He brought his experience and style to a squad that had outgrown the best Alan Trammell could offer, and crafted them into a World Series team. For that, I’ll always be grateful to Leyland. He helped resurrect my favorite team in my favorite sport after it had been an embarrassment for several years. He had personality and confidence, and he knew baseball. Man, he knew the crap out of baseball.
Every manager has a shelf life, regardless of how well he captains his ship. This was discussed ad nauseum last offseason with the Terry Francona dismissal. It happened with Joe Torre, too. It’s not a matter of a manager losing his skills managing, but sometimes it’s just a manager getting to a point where he needs to move on. And make no mistake: Leyland has to move on.
His choices are adversely affecting a team that does not work within his style of managing; his style of baseball has become antiquated. He is now considered loyal to a fault. He is obsessed over the public’s obsession with his lineups, and he has no patience for a fan base that demands answers. Don’t get the wrong impression, please: I am and always will be a Jim Leyland fan. I love his grumpy interviews and how he’s not afraid to call out people. I love that he cares so much about the teams he’s heading. However, I do believe that his version of baseball is about as relevant as bunting with a man on first and no one out (hint: not at all relevant).
His loyalty is commendable in terms of human emotion, but in terms of consistently starting players who are not performing well simply to get their confidence back up? That’s not right. Same thing with the bullpen: Benoit went through a crummy stretch, and he kept trotting back out to give up runs because Leyland wants to stroke his ego. And really, the Ryan Raburn thing was getting old at the beginning of 2011.
Going back to the “style of play thing,” the man manages a team like it’s 1992. Bunting should not be used basically ever in a game. I do think it’s alright if it’s in the seventh or later and there’s a man on second and no outs, but that’s just me. His inability to bat Miguel Cabrera in the third spot regularly until this season absolutely made no sense. He doesn’t seem to respect OBP as much as he should, nor does he use speed properly. He doesn’t seem to play the right players defensively at the right times, nor does he manage a bullpen well. Sure, these are the players that Dave Dombrowski gives him, but he could use them more efficiently.
To me, it seems like a World Series win would be Leyland’s best chance to leave on a positive note. Otherwise, he probably won’t be returning next season. As a replacement, I’m staunchly in the Terry Francona camp. With how he juggled those extremely talented Boston teams (Hmmm…Pedro Martinez – Best Pitcher….Manny Ramirez – Best Right Handed Hitter…) and how he managed a game, I just like him more for this team. He can be their Larry Brown. Also, he was a bench coach in Detroit just before he got his first managerial job with the Phillies, and my editor at Mlive had him as a manager in the White Sox minor leagues for “about two weeks” and said he was “a really cool guy.” (That’s as close as I could get for “insider interviewing”…..).
But regardless of who replaces him, I feel like it’s best if we the Grumpy Old Man amble off into the sunset after this season, and let the Tigers realize their vast potential.