Tigers getting ferocious under Leyland

Tigers getting ferocious under Leyland

The small visiting manager's office is standing room only and reporters spill into the small hallway to hear the man speak. Or try to hear him speak, anyway.

Jim Leyland is giving a gravel-voiced soliloquy about his life, right now, as the back-from-semi-retirement manager of the similarly resurrected Detroit Tigers.

Both Leyland and the Tigers had been out of the limelight for years but are now back on top of baseball, and it's turning into the biggest story of the season. People are starting to notice.

On this day, Leyland's voice is firm but quiet throughout a wide-ranging half-hour chat that lasts longer than the fire-flavored jawbreaker he held in his cheek. His Detroit Tigers have the best record in the Majors, at 48-25 (.658) entering the weekend, a 180-degree turn from the past 13 years of Tigers baseball.

He is typically gruff, and occasionally hilariously deadpan. Leyland is honest and as authentic as any manager in baseball. No different than when he was guiding the Pirates to new heights in the '80s or taking the Marlins to a World Series championship nine years ago.

"I've just been myself," he said. "I haven't tried to push myself on anybody, I'm having a good time. I love baseball and I'm managing the way I think is the right way to manage. I don't think I deserve any credit. I'm just being myself. I don't want any credit, I'm not looking for credit and you know what? I don't want any blame [if we stink]."

Leyland is a lifer in baseball, with more than 40 years in the game. But in 1999, he suddenly quit while managing the Rockies. He turned to doing some scouting and instruction for Tony La Russa and the Cardinals out of his Pittsburgh home and the Cardinals training camp in Jupiter, Fla. He also spent time with his wife Katie and still-young children, Patrick, 15, and Kellie, almost 13.

But after the 2004 season, he decided he was ready to return. He interviewed for the Phillies job during that offseason, then found a fit this past offseason. Tigers president Dave Dombrowski had been Florida's general manager when Leyland won the World Series with the Marlins.

"I didn't miss it," he said. "I missed the competition, but I would have been very happy if I never managed again."

So why come back?

"Because I want to try and win. I wanted to get back in it. I can have a conversation on the phone with my kids now ... I'm into it. ... I'm into the whole thing. Believe me. If I wasn't, I'd go home."

Leyland's arrival has made a sea change in a Tigers' clubhouse culture that had experienced nothing but mediocrity. After speaking with the media, Leyland puts on his hat and his wraparound sunglasses and makes his rounds through the clubhouse, taking the temperature of the team.

"We know it's business, but he makes it so much fun," said outfielder Craig Monroe. "He makes it fun to come into the clubhouse. He's a jokester -- he likes telling jokes.

"He walks through the clubhouse and he gives you little bits, like, 'Hey, it'll be easy to let one get away today. Let's make sure we prepare and let's play nine innings.' His insight on how to get into the mental aspect, making sure that you're prepared is for me one of the best things I've experienced."

Leyland is as excitable as ever in the dugout, no matter what the score or situation. Like he says, he's into it. Don't think the players don't notice.

"If you watch the game, he has his spikes on," Monroe says, laughing. "I'm like, 'Skip, why do you have your spikes on?' 'Because I'm ready, I'm game-ready.' He's ready to go and it rubs off. Because you see the excitement in his eyes, you know the love. You see the passion in his eyes about this game and what it means to him."

Leyland says he's crustier than he used to be. He'll snap at reporters' questions, he disdains the rise in TV and sports radio reporters. He said he doesn't have time for "silly" stuff. But, really, he hasn't changed.

"He no different, he's just got more wrinkles," said first base coach Andy Van Slyke, who played an All-Star center field for Leyland's NL East champion teams of the early '90s.

Van Slyke is joined on the coaching staff by other former Pirates like Don Slaught, Rafael Belliard and Lloyd McClendon, and Gene Lamont, who's twice coached under Leyland. These are people he's comfortable with, and they know how to communicate his simple message: Play hard and have fun.

"If you just come to play the game correctly and are mentally ready, you'll never have a problem with Jim Leyland," Van Slyke said. "He will not accept mailing it in or not being prepared."

The players are buying in, but it's not just Leyland's exhortations that turned the tables. He has real talent on this team.

There is a mix of young talent (Curtis Granderson, Chris Shelton) and veteran presence (Magglio Ordonez, Pudge Rodriguez) in the lineup. Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya have been revelations on the mound. Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones are defying middle age. Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman are frontline starters to go with Verlander and Rogers. This is a far cry from the 119-loss team from 2003.

"I like them, they're good guys," Leyland said of the young players that fill out the roster. "They're still in the process of learning how to get over the hump to win and how to handle winning and handle losing. We've got a long way to go."

Jon Greenberg is a freelance writer based in Chicago.