"Everybody laughed at it because they thought it was really bush [league]," Leyland said. "I was celebrating because I didn't have to quit then."
Fast-forward two decades to when Leyland took the Tigers job last October. Just finish over .500, his brothers told him, and the city of Detroit would be estatic. So on Sunday, when the Tigers' 82nd win clinched their first winning season since 1993 with five weeks still to go, Leyland remembered what he'd been told, both last fall and 20 years before.
As long ago as that seems, when expectations were still like that, Leyland had to smile. He wasn't trying to lower expectations. Five days earlier, when the Tigers ensured they'd end their 12-year streak of losing seasons, he said he didn't take the job to finish .500. But remembering what his brothers said reminded him of what winning means to this franchise, and he brought up to reporters that they'd guaranteed a winning season.
"I'm celebrating on the plane," he said. "I don't even drink, but I might have a little glass of wine."
"I'm tickled," he later insisted. "You might think I'm kidding, but I'm not. I'm proud of that."
The win aside, the Tigers didn't exactly head from Cleveland to New York as a juggernaut. They've lost or split five of their last six series, and with the Twins and White Sox standing five and 5 1/2 games back, respectively, the AL Central race has tightened. Yet the image of the Tigers as a young team overcome by nerves isn't entirely accurate, even from the guys who haven't been in a playoff race before.
"It's funny, because people say we haven't had one of these [prolonged struggles]," Nate Robertson said Sunday morning. "Listen, there's a group of guys here that had a lot of these three years ago. I was talking to [Brandon] Inge the other day about that. It's like, this is nothing compared to falling on real hard times."
For all the stereotyping of Leyland as a fire-breathing manager, one would imagine he'd be hitting another decible level with his players lately. However, the lesson in all of this is that Leyland works on keeping his players loose. When they were on their way to getting swept in Chicago earlier this month, the one pregame talk he had with them was to tell them to enjoy the pennant race rather than dread it.
He pointed out that his team looked tired Thursday, when their 10-0 loss to the White Sox earned Chicago a series split, but he repeatedly cautioned that he wasn't mad at his players. His postgame instructions to them after another loss wasn't angry, but direct.
"If we want to play in October, we have to all step it up," he said at the time. "I love my team, but that's the facts. If we don't, we go home."
Nor did he try to overanalyze his club during the struggles. When asked about his reaction to Carlos Guillen's comments that the Tigers might actually be playing too relaxed, Leyland pointed out that he's not a psychologist. And whenever he was asked about the struggles over the weekend, he kept it simple.
After they had won, Leyland didn't change his tune of sticking by his players. After all the moves made following Sunday's game, the net effect isn't drastic. They'll have another hard-throwing 21-year-old rookie in the bullpen because Leyland believes talent wins out, regardless of experience. And in sending down Brent Clevlen for a week, Leyland said he wanted to give a boost of confidence to the recently-slumping Curtis Granderson.
"Hopefully, we're through one of those stretches now where when we pitched good, we didn't hit, and when we hit good, we didn't pitch," he said. "Hopefully, that's behind us, and that's why I wasn't going to yell at them and panic and scream at them. That's not going to happen.
"They know what's in front of them. There's nobody here that hasn't been trying for the last few days or through this tough stretch. It's just that you let your imagination get carried away when you go start going a little tough. And all of a sudden, you think every ball you hit is hard and somebody makes a great play on every ball. It really doesn't work that way, but that's the way it seems to be. We had our share of good breaks, obviously.
"We just have to keep playing, and that's what we're going to do. If we're good enough, we'll still be playing in October. And if we're not, we'll be home."
Leyland, for one, thinks they're good enough to celebrate in October.