By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Donny Kelly said it best. With Jim Leyland, what you see is what you get.
Leyland, who today announced his retirement after eight years managing the Detroit Tigers, never pretended to be anything different than exactly what he was.
Before every home game, he hosted the media in his office three and a half hours before first pitch. Some days he’d be sitting at his desk with his feet up, shoes off. Other days he would be sprawled out across his couch, every now and then wrapped in a blanket, having slept at the office after a long day. Sometimes he’d be in full uniform. Other times, he lounged about in nothing more than compression shorts.
Always, Leyland smoked. He would go through a cigarette or two every day while reporters peppered him with questions.
Though he might get annoyed at repeated inquiries or follow-ups of questions he did not particularly like, Leyland never acted like he was too good to explain himself. He would always talk through the factors of various decisions.
He continued that practice when he announced his retirement Monday morning.
“I want to tell you exactly how this went down,” Leyland began. “On Sept. 7, Kansas City, after we shellacked the Royals Friday night, I asked [general manager Dave [Dombrowski] if I could meet him for coffee in the morning. I did that, and the conversation basically went like this. I said, ‘Dave, I don’t know what your plan is for next year.’ And he said, ‘Well, you’re my manager.’
“And I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to be the manager,'” Leyland continued. “I said, ‘It’s time. I don’t feel it’d be fair to the players, to this organization, to [team owner] Mr. [Mike] Ilitch, to the media, to the fans or for anybody else for me to continue to go out. The fuel is starting to get low.'”
Just as promised, Leyland gave all the details. He revealed that he started considering in June whether or not he should return. He also divulged that after telling general manager Dave Dombrowski that he would not be back, he told three others – his wife Katie, bench coach Gene Lamont and longtime manager and close friend Tony LaRussa.
“It’s a pretty simple reason why it didn’t get out,” Leyland said. “We never told the players. There were only three people that knew about this. We didn’t tell any players because we didn’t want to upset the apple cart. We were trying to win another championship, which we did, some form of championship. We didn’t want this to be a distraction.”
Leyland did not want to be the center of attention. He waited for the end of the season so his retirement would not take away from the games or the chase for the World Series. He even waited through the weekend to announce the news because he did not want to step on the toes of the Boston Red Sox, who had defeated the Tigers in the ALCS.
As would be expected, Leyland told his players first, and as always, he put his heart on his sleeve when describing how he feels about them. Even as he described the moment, saying it was not emotional, he tried not to tear up, his bottom lip quivering slightly.
“I informed them, and you could hear a pin drop,” Leyland said. “It really wasn’t – believe it or not, it really wasn’t that emotional. I spent the last 24 hours promising myself I would not get emotional today, and I’m not going to, believe it or not, but it was touching. I had a lot of nice comments from my players. I love them.”
Leyland could have managed again next year, and he thinks the players would have wanted him back, but he said it would have been unfair because he just felt like he could not do the job the right way.
“I truly think this is going to be a very good team next year, but it would have been totally selfish on my part,” Leyland said. “I think I would have been coming back for the wrong reasons. I’ve never been a guy to take a paycheck if I didn’t think I could this. This job entails a lot more than people think. It’s a lot more than writing out the lineup and pulling the pitcher.
“I’m low on fuel,” Leyland added. “I could see it coming. The trips were starting to get tough. If you look at what we just did in the postseason, when I went to Oakland, back and forth twice, then flew into Boston, got in at 9 o’clock in the morning. Like I said, I’m going to be 69 years old. I’m not ashamed of that. I’m proud of it, but the fuel’s getting a little low.”
Leyland waited for the right time to retire. He did not overstay his welcome by any means. Many will miss him, and he will be hard to replace. With over a half century in baseball under his belt, Leyland had been playing or managing for double the time that some of his players had been alive. That is a heck of a baseball mind to no longer have in the clubhouse.
In eight years with the Tigers, Leyland did a remarkable job. Some will comment on the money the Tigers spent, but money does not guarantee success. Just look at the Los Angeles Angels. The Tigers flourished, and Leyland was a large part of that.
Personally, I am sad to see Leyland go because I learned more about baseball every time I listened to him. I think even the veteran writers, even some of the most senior ones, would probably tell you the same. Fortunately, for the Tigers, this is just “So long,” and not “Goodbye,” as Leyland put it, because he will accept another position with the Tigers.
“That’s the one thing I’m really happy about,” Leyland said with a smile, sitting at the podium in a black suit and light pink tie. “I think I’ve still got a chance to get a World Series ring here – at least I think they’ll give me one if they win here next year.”
I’m sure they will, Jim. I’m sure they will.