Thursday, November 20, 2008

November 20, 1985 - Jim Leyland Comes To Town

James Richard Leyland was born on December 15, 1944, in Perrysburg, Ohio, right on the Maumee River, the son of a factory foreman, and a wiry kid who grew up tough and driven.

Leyland started his baseball career with the Tigers when they inked him as a catcher on September 21, 1963. He spent six seasons in the Detroit minors (1964-69) before leaving the plate for the dugout.

He became a coach for the Montgomery Rebels in 1970, moving to the Rocky Mount Leafs for half of the 1971 season before earning his first managerial shot with the Bristol Tigers that same year.

Leyland managed for 11 seasons in the Tigers' organization (1971-81), advancing to the playoffs six times and claiming three league titles. He was selected as the manager of the year in the Florida State League in 1977 and 1978, and given the same honor in the American Association in 1979, a pretty cool trifecta.

He was always had a cigarette jones, even back in the day, and a locla newspaper ran a story about that habit: "Ex-umpire Sonny Fulks recalled a minor-league game in the 1970s when chain-smoker Jim Leyland, then managing the Lakeland (Fla.) Tigers, had just fired one up when Fulks called a balk on Leyland's pitcher.

"He ran out on the field to argue and jammed the cigarette in the hip pocket of his pants, which were double-knit," Fulks told the Dayton Daily News. "By the time he got to second base, it had melted a hole in the seat and he was really smoking.

"He didn't stay long. He wasn't wearing underwear, and I mean his [rear end] was hangin' out."

Leyland left the Tigers' nest in 1982 when he became Tony La Russa's third base coach (1982-85) with the Chicago White Sox, waving in the runs during team's 1983 AL West division title season.

Then Syd Thrift had a brainstorm when it was time to find Chuck Tanner's replacement. He raided Chicago and named Jim Leyland to be the 33rd Pirate skipper on November 20, 1985.

He managed the Bucs from 1986 to 1996, winning two Manager of the Year trophies in 1990 and 1992. Leyland had an All-Star line-up with Barry Bonds, Jay Bell, Doug Drabek, John Smiley, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla.

The no-nonsense Bucco leader became a local folk hero when in 1991, with local TV cameras rolling during camp, he scolded Barry Bonds for talking back to a coach. Leyland yelled, "I've kissed your butt for three years! If you don't want to be here, then get your butt off the field!" The blue collar fans of Pittsburgh had found their boy.

Under Leyland, the Pirates went to the NLCS three straight seasons (1990-1992). The Pirates lost all three, the last pair going the full seven games against the Atlanta Braves. Sid @#%&* Bream!

But the management, the Pittsburgh Associates and Cam Bonifay, began breaking up the team after 1992's run, and sapped Leyland. After 11 seasons, he had enough of the losing.

In 1997, he was hired by Wayne Huizenga to manage the Florida Marlins and led them to the franchise's first championship. The Marlins, in only their fifth year of existence, became the fastest expansion franchise to win a World Series, a feat that has since been bested only by the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.

In the offseason, Huizenga dismantled the team in what became known as "the fire sale." Leyland stayed as the manager, but used an escape clause in his contract to defect to Colorado after his defending champions lost 108 games in 1998.

But after another bad year with the disappointing Rockies, he called it quits, walking away from $4.5 million of a three-year, $6 million deal, the largest ever signed by a major-league manager to that time. He said he just didn't have the energy to compete anymore. The fire that burned so fiercely had banked.

So he became a Pittsburgh-based scout for the Cards, hired by his bud Tony LaRussa. He was often spotted sitting in the stands at PNC Park with fellow ex-Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, one with a smoke hangin' out his mouth and the other with a crumpled roll-up hat, no doubt reminiscing about the good ol' days of Bucco baseball.

But the fire still smoldered, and Leyland interviewed for the Phillies' managerial vacancy following the 2004 season after Larry Bowa was fired, losing out to Charlie Manuel.

When the 2005 season ended, Leyland dropped some broad hints that he was more than willing to return to Pittsburgh, his home since 1985. Again he lost out, without even the courtesy of an interview, to Littlefield's pre-ordained pick, Jim Tracy.

Pittsburgh's loss, Detroit's gain. Leyland shrugged off the rejection and returned his baseball roots, taking the helm of the Detroit Tigers when he replaced Alan Trammell on October 3, 2005.

And he remembered where he came from. Among his coaches were Lloyd McClendon, Gene Lamont (who replaced Leyland at Pittsburgh), and Andy Van Slyke, kindred spirits from the Pirate days that provided him with a comfort zone at his new gig.

In the 2006 regular season, Leyland took the Tigers to a 95-67 record, their best year since 1987. The Tigers entered the playoffs as the wild card, and went on to whup the New York Yankees and sweep the Oakland Athletics on their way to winning the AL pennant.

But he lost the World Series to his mentor, Tony LaRussa, and his St. Louis Cards, a heavy underdog, proving its' not how you start the year, but how you finish it. The Tigers extended Leyland's contract through 2009 after he won the Manager of the Year award for the third time.

Leyland became the seventh manager in history to win pennants in both leagues that year, joining Joe McCarthy, Yogi Berra, Alvin Dark, Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams, and Tony La Russa.

After a disappointing 2008 season, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski confirmed that Leyland would be back for the 2009 season, although his contract wasn't being extended this time around. That's OK. Jimmy Leyland with a chip on his shoulder is a formidable force.

In 17 seasons as a big league manager, Leyland's posted a 1326-1360 (.494) record, with five playoff appearances, two chances at the dance, and a World Series title.

He's known as a hard-nosed guy that tells it like it is, with a somewhat unorthodox managing style. But in March, he told the Post Gazette's Paul Meyer that managing is simple:

"John Russell will do fine -- if he has good players. Just like Jim Leyland will do fine if he has good players. Tony La Russa will do fine if he has good players. Bobby Cox will do fine if he has good players. But, if you don't have good players, you won't do fine."

"We all know the hit-and-run," Leyland said. "We all know about playing the infield in or back. Now, people get tired of hearing this, but the team with the best players is going to win. That's just the way it is.

"If the best players execute against a team of players who aren't very good players, the best players are going to win." Word.

The 63-year old Leyland still keeps his home in Pittsburgh (Thornburg, to be exact), where he met his wife Katy and has raised two children, Pat and Kelly. In fact, they were hitched by Jim's bro Tom, a Catholic priest who did the honors on November of 1987. The kids go to Bishop Canevin High School. You can find Leyland in the Beaver Valley indoor baseball complex in the off season, coaching up the youngsters.

And that's Jim Leyland. No matter where he's at, he's a Pittsburgh guy.

(Tomorrow at noon, GW gives his take on the 40-man roster moves)

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