Leyland's old-school demeanor is infused with heart
Tigers manager wins over players with emotions-on-his-sleeve approach
MIAMI -- Don't let the gruff exterior fool you. Jim Leyland is a softie at heart.
He's a crooner who used to sing at weddings and performed at the Tigertown just this past spring. He loves musicals.
He answers fan mail, as long as it's not vulgar, and once invited a fan who ripped him in a letter to a game to figure out what he was so mad about.
And every so often, Leyland cries.
The few who didn't know that fact realized last week with the sight of a teary-eyed Leyland talking about his team after clinching a third consecutive American League Central title, right before Torii Hunter lifted him up and carried him into the middle of the clubhouse celebration.
"I know I got a little overemotional," Leyland said. "I hate to do that, because I know I make a fool of myself. But that's who I am. I can't help it. I wish I could, because it's embarrassing."
Leyland cried his first year in Detroit when he saw the way the team celebrated Kenny Rogers' 200th win. He cried later that year when the Tigers clinched their first playoff spot in 19 years. He got emotional when he led last year's team to the World Series.
Given the loftier expectations this team has, some thought he might remain stoic when the Tigers clinched the division this year. Instead, he was fighting back tears from the start.
"I'm as proud of this team as any team," Leyland said. "I mean, people were setting us up for failure from Day 1. That's just the way it was set up. We have a good team. If they don't win the division, there's something wrong. Well, it's not easy to live with that from Spring Training, all winter, and on through the whole season. And these guys did that. They showed me something."
Expectations are nothing new for Leyland. The manager who made his name leading a small-market Pittsburgh team to three consecutive division titles in the early 1990s has pulled off a similar trifecta in Detroit under vastly different circumstances. What began as a Cinderella trip from the Wild Card to the World Series in 2006 has become a star-studded dynasty in the AL Central the last three years. The last two teams were seen as major favorites to win the division and beyond. This year's team carried World Series expectations, pegged by many as a favorite.
It was Leyland's job to manage those expectations while his future rested in the balance of them. All three division titles have come with Leyland not under contract for the following season. He goes year to year on his deal these days knowing that a disappointing finish could be it for him.
He's fine with that. He's already managed his original club longer than he ever expected.
"I thought I'd probably be here five years," Leyland said, "and I'm still here. I'm going pretty strong. I thought I'd be here five years, but I'm enjoying it and I love the atmosphere, I love the competition and I love the team we've got."
He's an old-school manager who's a player's manager. He trusts that his veterans know how to prepare, and he's willing to give them as much information as they want or need. As much second-guessing as he has taken for continuing to play Miguel Cabrera while he's been hobbled, he trusts Cabrera's insistence that maintain his timing going into the playoffs is more important.
He doesn't try to reinvent anything. He tries to get the best out of what he's got.
When he gets a season like this, he cries. For him, it's embarrassing. For others, it's actually kind of touching.
"I know they're our chief competitor in our division, but I'm very fond of him," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "You could see by his emotions how much he cares. That was kind of neat to see."
His players find it endearing, which is why Hunter put him in the middle of the party.
"He's one of the reasons why we're out there," Hunter said in the midst of the celebration. "He has a great environment in the clubhouse. He comes in, he's got a great, uplifting spirit and he's always on your side. He's always with you, lifting you up and pumping you up. So, yeah, he's a big part of this. He needed to be a part of it. He's the man."
There Leyland stood, in the middle of the celebration, jumping around his players half his age in some cases and less than that in others. Then he moonwalked out. That wasn't quite as embarrassing for him. In fact, it wasn't even a first.
"I don't think a lot of people realize, because they only see me as a grumpy old man, I did that a few times during the course of a season when we had a win and the guys were kind of celebrating in the clubhouse," Leyland said. "I did it for them two or three times. That really wasn't something that just happened the other night. And they got a big kick out of it, laughed at me. What the heck? It makes it fun."
And then, just like that, it's gone.
"It was a wonderful, wonderful celebration. It was great. I hope the fans enjoyed it. But all that stuff is over with now," Leyland said. "I'm back to my crusty old self."