Serious Tiger fans learned early on that Jim Leyland grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, in a staunchly Catholic household during the post-WWII era. During his adolescence, his parents must have frequently discussed the contrasting lifestyles of Jim and his older brother Tom, a future priest. It’s easy to imagine the elder brother reverently snuffing out candles in the hushed corridors of the local church, while Jim was lighting up Camels and swearing with his buddies down at the neighborhood ball diamond. Growing up in the shadow cast by WWII, when both soldierly and religious values were held dear, the Leyland brothers clearly had both bases covered.
In 2006, in his first year as manager in Detroit, Jim Leyland brought a gritty confidence to a team coming off a dismal 71-91 season. Under his guidance, players such as Kenny Rogers, Magglio Ordonez, and Ivan Rodriquez enjoyed All-Star seasons, and a kid pitcher named Justin Verlander won Rookie of the Year honors. The team survived a late season stumble and sneaked into the postseason as a wild-card entrant. When Ordonez hit a cathartic ninth inning home run against Oakland on a chilly October night in Detroit, the Tigers qualified for their first World Series since 1984. Following the season, Leyland was named Manager of the Year for the third time.
Aside from a disappointing 2008 campaign, the Dave Dombrowski/Jim Leyland era brought star players, large crowds, and winning baseball to Detroit. Under Leyland’s tutelage, the Tigers regularly competed hard into October, as postseason play became the norm. His team posted a second World Series berth in 2012, led by slugger Miguel Cabrera and ace pitcher Justin Verlander. Though it ended too soon, the 2013 postseason had its own personality, featuring eleven heart-stopping games which contained more twists and tilts than a two-rut road in the Upper Peninsula.
Along the way Leyland scowled, ranted and argued. He also smiled, moon-danced and wept. To his credit, try as he might, he could never quite mask his basic humanity.
Leyland’s crowning professional achievement was his World Series win as the manager of the Florida Marlins in 1997. It’s a shame he didn’t duplicate that feat in what turned out to be his last year at the helm in Detroit. Unfortunately, the baseball gods refuse to be scripted and remain as unsentimental as a leg-hold trap. Taken as a whole, however, Leyland’s tenure was highly successful and he presided over a true renaissance of major league baseball in Detroit.
One could leave a lesser legacy.
Bon Voyage, Mr. Leyland.