Still hungry, Leyland has no plans to slow down
Marking 50th year in baseball, veteran eyes another title, not retirement
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Ty Cobb's portrait still hangs on the wall in the manager's office at Joker Marchant Stadium. It still has the tear in it, now 36 years old, from when a young manager threw his cleats across the room after a tough loss with the Class A team.
Jim Leyland wanted badly to win with the Tigers then. He still wants it badly now. It's not only Ty Cobb's face that shows it anymore.
Look back at the footage from Leyland's first season in Detroit seven years ago, when he led the Tigers to the World Series, and you can tell the years have worn on him. The moustache has more silver than it did even then. The hair has thinned a little more on top. The face is timeless, the stare memorable, but the years are evident.
His passion, however, is still youthful, and it still drives him. It still allows him to relate to players now two generations younger than he. It still allows him to push himself as a manager, to adapt some of his ways to the modern game, to enjoy himself at the height of pressure.
"I love what I'm doing," Leyland said. "I love the competition. I like the good pressure of it. I don't like some of the stuff that goes with it. Nobody likes some of the stuff that goes with it, but you accept that. When you sit in this chair, you accept that. If you don't, you're crazy."
No active manager has more wins, but he'll say that happens when you stick around long enough. Leyland already has a World Series ring, now 16 years ago from the Marlins, and he savors it for silencing the critics who said he couldn't win the big one after all those tries with the Pirates.
That ranks up with the division titles in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates' success in the late '80s and early '90s arguably saved baseball in the city.
"It's almost impossible to say that the World Series isn't the height," Leyland says of his career highlights, "but having won the division title in Pittsburgh is right there. And then in 2006, going to the World Series with the Tigers our first year is right there. That's something I've got in my own den to think about when I want to think about it. It doesn't really matter what anybody else thinks, but those are special moments for me."
But winning a World Series in Detroit would be the highlight. Sure, he'd like to win one for Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who has invested millions into fielding a championship contender. But he isn't going to hide at least a little bit of selfishness.
"I'd like to win one for me," Leyland admitted earlier this spring.
He made it clear already this spring that he isn't ready to retire anytime soon; he's thinking of his managerial future in years, not just year to year. That doesn't mean he doesn't think about his legacy. A World Series title for the Tigers would bring it full circle.
This is the team that signed him out of high school a half a century ago. This is the organization that dropped the hint to a light-hitting Double-A catcher that maybe managing was his best way to stick in baseball. Between Sparky Anderson's Hall of Fame tenure and the years of struggles that followed, Leyland waited for a chance to come back. He wants to finish the job.
"For Mr. Ilitch, obviously, you get a little sentimental, I'd like to see it happen for him. But I don't [fool] anybody," he explained. "I'd like to see it happen for me. I want to win. I like to win. That's what I do this for. But I think it's different when you grew up in an organization like I did in Detroit and never really got a chance [to reach the big leagues here] until late in life.
"To see the passion that those fans have and the generations of fans that they have and the history of their fans, from great-great grandfathers to the great-grandfather to the father to the grandsons or whatever it may be, it's pretty special, to be honest with you. It's different."
|"I don't know about [how many] years, but I know that I'm not ready to go home. I love what I do.|
|-- Jim Leyland|
Chasing that has taken a lot. His future has been a question in three of the past four seasons. First came the intrigue whether the Tigers would bring him back, then the question of whether he would want to come back. Davey Johnson's success managing the Washington Nationals has dropped Leyland, who turned 68 in December, to the game's third-oldest manager, not the second.
Johnson, 70, has already made it clear this is his last year managing. Charlie Manuel, 11 months older than Leyland, hasn't said anything regarding next year. Leyland, though, is making it clear he isn't ready to go.
Leyland loves what he does -- the stress, the success, the camaraderie, all that comes with it. His contract runs year to year, just like his good friend Tony La Russa's did. His passion, however, does not. Even if they win, he doesn't plan to retire.
"I don't know about [how many] years, but I know that I'm not ready to go home," Leyland said earlier this spring. "I love what I do. I will say this now: When you get my age, stuff starts to pop up. So far, knock on wood, nothing's popped up, but if it did, I might have to go home, if it's health or something. But I have no intention of going home. I don't."
He has long since passed the age when many people start to look at their careers in the past tense. He has just now started to look at his legacy. Whether he wins here or not, he cautions, he's going to look back and be happy.
More accurately, he's grateful. For someone who never played in the Major Leagues, he has the second-highest total in wins and games managed, trailing only Hall of Famer Joe McCarthy.
"You know what? If I went out tomorrow, I would feel that I went out on top," Leyland said. "I was a backup Double-A catcher, hitting .222. I've managed in the big leagues 22 years with a world title, division titles, Major League championships. I don't care what you guys think. I mean, I don't mean that disrespectfully, but I don't care what you think.
"I've got some money in my pocket. I've made a lot of money, had a lot of fun, managed a lot of great players against a lot of great players. What's to complain about?"
He won't complain, but if he wins one more here, he'd surely cheer.
"Is two better than one? Yes, unless you're talking about traffic tickets," Leyland said.