By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Aside from one more brief moment in the spotlight Saturday, when he threw out of the first pitch and gave a quick speech in a pregame ceremony honoring him for his achievements as the manager of the Detroit Tigers, Jim Leyland has transitioned quietly into a background role for organization.
Now a special assistant to Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, Leyland said the change is ideal.
“I’m doing great. I really am,” Leyland said Saturday, speaking in the press box before the game. “I have no second thoughts at all. I’m very happy. I’m involved in the replay. I just came from New York a few days ago, the replay, the war zone area, and looking at that. It’s a $30 million operation. It’s absolutely fantastic. I get to watch the Tigers, I’m doing some work for Dave. I’m going to go to Toledo and look at the Mud Hens, I’ve already been to Erie, and I’ll later on go look at our A-ball club. [New Tigers manager] Brad [Ausmus] texts me quite often to just say hello, whatever it is. I talk to [Tigers bench coach] Gene Lamont practically every day.
“So I’m quite a ways away,” Leyland added, “but at the same time pretty close.”
The more relaxed role with the Tigers seems to suit Leyland to a tee. He strode into the media session dressed in a sport jacket over an untucked plaid shirt with jeans and bright blue tennis shoes.
After greeting 97.1 The Ticket reporter Jeff Riger – “I bet you haven’t given Ausmus s— one time this year!” – and wrapping the very surprised Riger in a big bear hug, Leyland sat down and announced he wanted to begin with a corny joke.
“Every time I go to a function, I get a new pair of shoes, so I went to get these shoes, and the guys comes out, he says, ‘What size do you wear?’ I said, ‘Size 11.’ So he brings them, and I put them on. I said, ‘They’re too tight.’ He said, ‘Well, try them with the tongue out.’”
Leyland stuck his tongue out and left it that way to deliver the goofy punchline.
“I said, ‘They’re still tight!’”
With a big, sheepish grin, Leyland concluded, “Anyway, that’s my corny joke.”
The former manager looked totally at ease, and he said his new job fits what he feels he should be doing at this point in his life.
“It’s less strenuous, to be honest with you,” Leyland said. “I have no media sessions. I just kind of – Dave’s been great, he told me just pick and choose what you want to do, if you want to take time to go see the Double-A club or the Triple-A club, go at your own judgment, and I was up in Erie, it was awful cold, saw three games.
“I like it because you’re still kind of a part of it, but you’re way back in the background, and at my age, that’s where I belong,” Leyland continued. “I’m very happy with my role. I hope I’m making some contributions. Dave seems satisfied with what I’ve been doing so far and the little bit of input that I’ve had in spring training and things, and the coaches have treated me great. You got a wonderful staff. Like I said, what’s not to like? This is a pretty good place to be playing – managing, playing, owning, whatever you want to say.”
The months since Leyland retired following last season have apparently not lessened the affection the players have for the old manager, who visited the clubhouse prior to Saturday’s game. Players seemed to love seeing Leyland again. Appropriately enough, the Tigers ended up winning the game that day on the strength of a pair of three-run homers, the kind of big-boom offense that characterized the club under Leyland.
“It was great,” designated hitter Victor Martinez said. “I think everybody was happy just to see Skipper. For his age, what an attitude, what an energy he’s got. It’s amazing. It felt great. It felt great to see him again today.
“It felt great winning in front of Skipper,” Martinez continued. “I’m going to talk personally – for me, it was a real honor to play for him.”
Pitcher Justin Verlander said it felt normal to have Leyland back in the clubhouse, having played for Leyland nearly his whole major league career. Verlander credited Leyland with bringing him up from the minors – he won the Rookie of the Year award in Leyland’s first season, 2006 – and letting him test his limits by pitching deep into games. Under other managers, Verlander said, maybe he would never have figured out he could throw 120 or 130 pitches.
In addition to Leyland’s significance to Verlander’s career, the pitcher said Leyland’s impact on the entire environment of the team was huge.
“His jokes are funny,” Verlander said with a smile. “He always likes to come to us in the outfield. You can see him coming from a mile away, and he always has this smirk on his face, and he starts laughing before he tells the joke, and then he laughs after it. He always tries to keep it light. He’s great.
“The atmosphere that he created amongst everybody, it’s always been a very fun and lively clubhouse since I’ve been here,” Verlander continued, “and I think that had a lot to do with him.”
Leyland, as would be expected, had similar feelings about reuniting with the players.
“I got a lot of hugs today,” Leyland said. “I went down to see the guys, I didn’t stay long. I just wanted to briefly show up. I thought that was necessary. The guys couldn’t have been greater. Brad’s been absolutely so respectful it’s unbelievable. It was great.
“It doesn’t smell like smoke in there at all anymore,” Leyland continued, inciting some laughter since everyone who covered the team was quite familiar with Leyland’s routine of constantly smoking in his office. “They got new carpet. The couch is still there, there is some chocolate ice cream still on that. It’s great. The clubhouse looks great, the guys look great. They’ve got a great atmosphere.”
The offense now looks different from the one Leyland managed, with much more activity on the base paths. Leyland said the new style excites fans and that they were ready to see players who can steal and go first to third. More than anything, Leyland likes the approach that Ausmus, the new manager in his first season, has taken with the veteran club.
“All is well with the Detroit Tigers,” Leyland said. “I can assure you that.”
From the looks of it, all is well with Leyland, too.