Jim Leyland made a lot of mistakes during his eight seasons as the Detroit Tigers’ manager. The second-guessing, occasionally angry in nature (including from yours truly), followed him right on through what turned out to be his final game in that post. Did he pull Max Scherzer too early in Game 6? Should have have stuck with Drew Smyly or Al Alburquerque?
We’ll never know the answers to those questions because Leyland, as he always did unapologetically, stuck to his guns against the Red Sox. Maybe you agreed with that, maybe you didn’t — and plenty of people did not — but Leyland never wavered from what his game plan.
Here’s the other thing … the factor in all this that will make it tough for even his staunchest detractors to swallow Leyland’s departure: He cared. He cared so much. When the Tigers won, something they managed to do far more with Leyland at the helm than in the 20 or so years before he arrived, he celebrated along with the fans. When they lost, in rather heartbreaking fashion this ALCS for example, he hurt as Detroit did.
If there is anything to take away from Leyland’s tenure, it’s that. Tigers fans were apoplectic over Prince Fielder’s reaction to his terrible postseason and the team’s playoff loss — “It’s over, I gotta move on.” There is nothing worse for fans than feeling like they have more invested in their team’s fortunes than the players do. Fans live and die with their clubs, and Tigers fans have suffered more than their fair share of disappointment since the 1984 World Series title. More than anything, Detroiters just want their players to feel the wins and losses as much as they do.
There is no question that Leyland did.
Sure, he was cantankerous at times, unnecessarily short with the
media and stubborn to the nth degree. The latter will have more than a few people excited about Leyland’s decision to step down, at the age of 68. His reputation as a “players’ manager” made him as popular as any manager you’ll ever see inside a clubhouse, and drove people looking in from the outside nuts. Leyland stuck with guys like Ryan Raburn and Phil Coke and Jose Valverde far longer than fans would have preferred.
And yet, when given the opportunities to change his managerial style, he usually dug in deeper. Mistakes? Yea, he said he made a few. But this was just how he operated.
I was right there with the majority of folks, questioning Leyland at every turn. The volume with which I disagreed lowered in 2013, as the Tigers won their third straight division title, but there remained a pretty distinct line in the sand between how Leyland called the shots in-game and how I — how a lot of Tigers fans — thought that he should.
Some of that entitlement simply came from being unexpectedly spoiled by success. Before Leyland took over in 2006, the Tigers had not been to the playoffs in nearly two decades. They were just three seasons removed from 119 losses and being the laughingstock of baseball. He took them to the World Series in his first year with the team, elevating him to local legend as the Tigers recaptured the hearts of so many disheartened followers.
Now, seven seasons later, this team is a perennial power and an annual World Series contender. Tigers fans owe Leyland and GM Dave Dombrowski a lot of thanks for making that happen.
Of course, part of Leyland’s legacy here will be of playoff disappointment. Four playoff trips (including two shots at the World Series) and no titles. For all the talent Dombrowski has rolled together over the last few seasons, Detroit recorded all of one World Series victory in Leyland’s tenure. Dombrowski deserves as much blame for the shortcomings as he does for the team’s turnaround. Perhaps Leyland, too, took this team as far as he could. Another manager, a different way of thinking, may be what the Tigers need to finally get over the top again.
There is danger, though, in change like this. Division titles and playoff berths may be taken for granted in the Motor City now, but neither should be. Tigers fans need look no further than that gap from 1988-2005 to see that truth.
And because of the recent mix — great team success, but only to a point — Leyland’s legacy in Detroit will be a confusing one. Somehow, he turned into a giant lightning rod for criticism while at the same time endearing himself to the fan base in a way not seen here since Sparky Anderson’s tenure ended.
There was a lot to dislike about how Leyland handled his lineups and the bullpen and late-game situations. There may have been more to love about how he poured his heart and soul into this Tigers team.
All he wanted was to watch over his players and to deliver a winner to the deserving fans of Detroit. He did both, for better or worse. Tigers fans can only hope the team’s next manager is willing to invest as much — into the job, the players, the city — as Jim Leyland did.