Leyland will be retired, replaced, but never matched

Leyland 002

Everybody who has covered Jim Leyland has a Jim Leyland story. It’s tough to be around him for any length of time and not have one. Mine just happened to play out over the airwaves, at least the first part of it.

You might remember the time a couple seasons ago when Jim Leyland jumped all over a question about Don Kelly. It was the day Brandon Inge returned from the disabled list, and Kelly — who had been playing well in a regular role at third in his place — was headed back to the bench. I asked Jim if Kelly would be back in his old utility role and Leyland, as he is apt to do from time to time, was anticipating a Kelly question.

“What do you want me to do with Don Kelly?” Leyland kept asking, over and over.

It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, and nothing I couldn’t take. When it aired on the radio less than an hour later, though, it was out there for everyone to hear, which was the last thing I wanted. If Leyland started feeling like anything he said would be on the air and guarded himself more, it would be nice for politeness, but not necessarily good for work.

Leyland’s initial reaction was out there for all to hear. What he did afterwards was not. As I was in the clubhouse later trying to gather information for notes, Leyland marched in from his office, looked around the clubhouse, marched over to Kelly’s locker, grabbed Kelly by the arm and then marched back.

“Beck,” he said to me, “I want to introduce you to Donnie Kelly.”

Kelly, understandably, had no idea what was going on, as the perplexed look on his face showed. He knew he was part of a gag, but didn’t know what it was. I had to explain to him what brought that all about, which of course meant that I had to explain to him that people were wondering what his role was going to be with Inge back.

The whole scene was bizarre, but it was funny. And in Leyland’s way, it was making light of what went on in his office. He wasn’t going to apologize, but this was his way of apologizing. It was also his way of keeping everybody on their toes.

Covering Leyland was unlike anything I’ve done in my career and probably ever will. In some ways, he was an analog manager adapted for a digital world. In other ways, he was older-era sensibilities in a new era of managing. His first season in Detroit, he was ranting about some story he read on the internet, and he was glaring at me the whole time. It wasn’t my story, or even anything on my site, but it was on the internet, and I work on the internet. Another time in those early years, he was ranting about something else (not another internet story) and was staring the whole time at my intern from that year, who had the fear of god on his face wondering what he’d done.

There was the time I had to go home from a road trip after getting sick and got a call from Leyland asking if everything was ok, and there was the time I got a call from Leyland during a weekend I wasn’t covering to give me grief for taking too many games off.

There was Leyland’s ability to have an opinion about something like managers with twitter accounts. And there was Leyland’s amazing ability to pick up his cell phone in the middle of a rant, answer a call from one of his kids, and suddenly change his voice from intense manager to family man as if the previous minute never happened.

He was from what everybody calls a simpler time, and he was way more complex than he let on at times. He wasn’t old-school, he once said, just old. Even in his press conference Monday, he made light of being considered grumpy. But he didn’t really like being called crusty.

He could get on a player about a game decision, then joke with them the next day as if nothing happened. He could disagree with Justin Verlander about goodness-knows-what, to the point where he joked about Verlander never agreeing with him about anything, but Verlander could have his back. He could be fierce with his players, then get fierce loyalty from them at the same time, from superstars to bench guys, and get them all to play as a team. The coming years could show just how tricky that is, just as the years before Leyland did.

He can be replaced as manager of the Detroit Tigers, just as he was in his other stops. But he can never be duplicated. There are a lot of things that could be reviewed about the 2013 team and what happened, but it shouldn’t be the final judgment from Leyland’s legacy. It’s a lot more complex than that, much like Leyland was.

4 Comments

Very nice Jason.

maaan. miss him already. this is by far my hardest “sports figure leaves town” moment.

Nice write-up Jason

as fans, we occasionally get a glimpse behind the manager facade in his interviews. how he interacts with his players and other people in the business is largely hidden to those outside the game. thanks for illuminating this a bit in your post. some stories are being written about the highlights of Leyland’s career…mostly reciting his resume. would enjoy reading an article about Leyland’s perspective on the memorable moments of his career. the stories would be quite different, i believe.

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