DETROIT (CBS Detroit) — Jim Leyland was brought to the Detroit Tigers organization in 2006 to win baseball games — a lot of baseball games — and that’s exactly what he did.
He was able to do that, he says, because team owner Mike Ilitch — who passed away on Friday — allowed him to just do his job. Leyland spoke with Dan Leach and Dennis Fithian live on 97.1 The Ticket on Friday night, just hours after Ilitch’s death was announced.
“He was a manager’s dream, obviously, because he never fell short of doing everything he could to put the best product on the field,” Leyland said. “Obviously, he wasn’t afraid to spend, he’s proven that time and time again. When he hired me, he let me do my job, he never interfered.”
The Tigers posted a 700-597 record with Leyland at the helm for eight seasons, which included three American League Central Division titles and two trips to the World Series. Leyland said he didn’t see much of Ilitch while he was managing, but one memory still sticks out.
“I can remember the one we won in Kansas City, he came in and I said, ‘Mr. Ilitch, would you like a beer?’ and he said, ‘yeah, I’ll take one,'” Leyland said. “He sat there and had a beer with me in the clubhouse while the players were out celebrating.”
Ilitch, who bought the Tigers in 1992 and the Detroit Red Wings in 1982, saw plenty of success in the NHL — winning four Stanley Cups. However, a World Series Championship always eluded him.
“We might not have got him that world championship, but I can guarantee you Mike Ilitch is the World Champion,” Leyland said. “We won quite a few championships, we just didn’t get that big one that he wanted.”
Leyland said many people will remember Ilitch for what he did with two legendary Detroit sports franchises, but his legacy is so much more than that.
“Like a lot of people who are very successful, he was a visionary, he could see, he could see the future,” Leyland said. “He knew things that were going to happen, I think. He was a brilliant man, he was an energetic man.
“He was so proud of Detroit and he wanted Detroit to be so good and he was so proud of trying to turn things around in Detroit,” Leyland continued. “I think about him more that way than I even do about sports teams.”