photo by Samara Pearlstein
Two Gold Gloves, Rookie of the Year, and now Manager of the Year, wow. This Tiger’s team is rackin’ up the individual award hardware. Apparently stuff like this happens when you have a team that, y’know, wins things, and plays the game of baseball in a way which could be categorized as ‘good’. I still goggle in cheerful amazement at it all.
Jim Leyland, this season, took on a team poised on the brink. The brink of WHAT? It was definitely on the brink of something, but that something could have been anywhere on the line from ULTIMATE GREATNESS to slightly-better-than-average mediocrity. They had (have) a lot of young talent just about ready to burst into glorious baseball flower, a lot of guys who the season before had been almost there but not….. quite….. yet. You can’t blame poor Tram for that, and you can’t really credit Leyland for it– that’s just how it worked out.
So the Tigers had all this young talent but they also had, thanks at least in part to the tremulous grip Tram had had on the team, a very real shot at not maximizing that talent due to clubhouse catfights. I hate to, in my usual histrionic way, make it seem worse than it probably was, but there WAS a kind of creeping toxicity around the team by the end of ’05. I don’t think anyone was openly feuding (except for Ugie, who was promptly removed from the equation) and I don’t think anyone was purposefully dipping a toe into fetid pool of team spirit with the express intent of stirring the stinkies up (except for Pudge, who was either trying to piss people off consciously, or actually didn’t give a flying fish what anyone thought). But you have to admit that while it wasn’t dire, it generally wasn’t good.
Along comes Leyland, kicking people in the shins with his cleats (by the way, I DON’T KNOW IF YOU’VE HEARD BUT HE WEARS HIS CLEATS IN THE DUGOUT OMGZ) and threatening people with smoldering cigarette butts (OMG DID YOU KNOW LEYLAND SMOKEZZ??). Everyone shook off their dark cloak of sullenness, got “winning attitudes”, and, well, won.
You can’t credit Leyland for the talent arriving as conveniently as it did, but I think you CAN credit him for that.
(And by the same token, you can’t REALLY blame Tram for not being able to take and keep control in the clubhouse like Leyland did… he should have started out managing in the minors first, and been allowed to work his way up, instead of being thrust directly into the big leagues. Leyland made his way up through the ranks and, by the time he got to us, had plenty of experience at the lower levels, and quite a bit of experience at this level too. Tram never got that chance or that training.)
Still, there are plenty of managers in the AL who have the experience, and who kept their players from going at each others’ throats during the regular season. What made Leyland stand out from the pack?
Jim Leyland’s Stand-out Facts of Managerial Awesomeity
1) Jim Leyland took an aggressively mediocre team, and won with it.
Everyone, all bloody year long, referenced 2003 and the Shocking Turnaround of the Millennium. While that is indeed amazing, all you really need to look at it is the difference between 2005 and 2006. In 2005 the Tigers had 71 wins and finished 4th in the division, ahead of only the lowly Royals. In 2006 the Tigers had 95 wins, finished second in the division by a hair but beat the snot out of the Yankees and then the A’s in the postseason anyways. Big difference.
2) Jim Leyland took whiny malcontents and formed them in his own stalwart image.
In 2005, Pudge Rodriguez complains about life, the universe, and everything. In 2005, Pudge Rodriguez farts off to Columbia whenever he feels like it. In 2005, Pudge Rodriguez feels free to go over his manager’s head and blab to the front office if he thinks he’s not getting his way. In 2006, Pudge Rodriguez shuts the F up and plays baseball.
3) Jim Leyland never let the team get unnecessarily down. But when the team played poorly, Jim Leyland tore out their livers with his own two hands and ate them raw.
That very first bad losing streak seemed like we were headed for 2005 all over again. The team was dragging its feet, playing like coprolites, everyone was sighing and resigning themselves to the inevitable worst. Jim Leyland said no. Jim Leyland put his charmingly cleated foot down and tore into the team in private, then tore into them again in public. The team shut the F up and played baseball.
Later, when small losing streaks would occur, the kinds of things that can really get a team and fans down at the time but which are bound to happen at least a few times over the course of a long season, Jim Leyland snorted at questions of whether or not he was concerned, and reminded us of what we all already intellectually knew– that being, of course, that it IS a long season, and bad luck happens (and is a different thing from sloppy, uninspired play).
Jim Leyland has been around the game of baseball for a good long time. Jim Leyland knows how things work. Jim Leyland is OK with bad luck. Jim Leyland is not OK with shoddy baseball, and Jim Leyland is smart enough to know the difference.
4) Jim Leyland is a tough old boy.
None of those pansy baby managers for us. Next thing you know, they’ll be allowing computers in the dugout, what is this world coming to, grumble grumble better game before I was born steroids steroids no one respects the game anymore and when I was in elementary school we had to walk 20 miles uphill both ways with flesh-eating cockroaches attached to our legs. And Jim Leyland understands this. He wears cleats in the dugout, you know.
5) Jim Leyland has a personality.
Shocking that this is a stand-out characteristic? Not really. Jim Leyland has a dry, sharply intelligent sense of humor; in the baseball world, that is the shocking thing. No one wants to give the Manager of the Year award to some old lump of tapioca in a uniform jacket who manages to stay out of the way of his own players enough to let them win some.
If you look at the NL Manager of the Year, it’s obvious that 2006 was the year of Rewarding the Managers Who Surprised the Lemmings Out of Everyone anyways. But even beyond that arbitrary criterion, Leyland deserved this one on many levels, just like Verlander richly deserved the ROY.
All is right with the universe.
And somewhere, Alan Trammell heaves a deep, dolorous sigh.