Kornacki: Give it up for Leyland

When Jim Leyland throws out the first pitch before Saturday's game against the Minnesota Twins, I hope he gets a standing ovation.

What Jim Leyland's teams and players accomplished is truly special.

Andrew Weber / USA TODAY Sports

DETROIT -- When Jim Leyland throws out the first pitch before Saturday's game against the Minnesota Twins, I hope he gets a standing ovation.

That will get to him, and Leyland will have to step off the rubber to wipe tears from his eyes.

It will be another moment to remember. It also will be a time to remember just what Leyland brought to this town, the Detroit Tigers teams he managed over eight seasons and its fans.

What his teams and players accomplished is truly special.

In 2006, Leyland took the Tigers to the World Series in his first season -- only three years after they had lost 119 games. He became the only manager to make four postseason runs with the Tigers, and closed out with three consecutive Central Division titles, which included a return to the World Series in 2012.

Miguel Cabrera won a pair of MVP awards and the Triple Crown. Justin Verlander was named the MVP and won the Cy Young Award, as did Max Scherzer. Detroit won everything but the World Series under him.

We all have memories of those accomplishments that we cherish.

Getting the opportunity to speak with Leyland in the daily media sessions, and at times privately, provided me memories that go beyond the games.

Leyland was one of the most complex sports figures I've dealt with. He was strange, yet down-to-earth; endearing, yet aggravating; and funny, yet gloomy. He could touch your heart and make you want to pull out your hair.

It took me two seasons to develop any kind of rapport with him. But when Leyland warmed up to me, it wasn't long before I felt like I had a friend for life.

There wasn't an epiphany moment. For whatever reason, the day just came when he decided I was worth his time. Even when he exploded at me one day in Seattle about a Joel Zumaya story I'd written, he apologized the next day in front of everybody.

Leyland had told the beat reporters that there was talk of moving Zumaya from the bullpen to the starting rotation next season. When I asked Zumaya about it, he simmered and went in to talk with Leyland, who then vented on me. But when Leyland realized he was wrong, he said he was sorry.

I left the Tigers beat briefly in 2011 for a job in Florida and told Leyland I was departing after a post-game press conference in Toronto. His eyes got big, he put down his cigarette and said that he would miss me. We talked for a bit, and when I got up to leave, he walked over to give me a hug and a pat on the back.

When I returned to the beat the next year, he made a point of checking on me from time to time to see how I was doing.

During the final month of his last season, I was watching batting practice in the dugout by myself. Leyland walked over and sat next to me. He struck up a very special conversation that lasted about 10 minutes. I didn't know it then, but it was his way of saying goodbye as a manager.

We've talked since, but there's something about a manager-beat writer relationship that's unique. For nine months every year, you share lives, the daily grind and get the manager's perspective on a team's highs and lows.

Leyland liked testing us. When he'd decided to move Miguel Cabrera to first base and Carlos Guillen to third base for the 2009 season, he told beat reporters about it one week before the 2008 season was over. He said we couldn't write about it until after the final game, though, and none of us gave in to the scoop temptation.

Leyland had these sayings after offering confidential comments: "This is off the record ... Way off the record ... Way, way off the record ... Now don't burn me with this!"

None of us ever did.

Still, there were times none of us could figure out Leyland.

There was a miscommunication over what time he wanted to meet reporters before a day game in Cleveland, and he canceled pre-game interviews and stewed for the rest of the series.

There were the days when his back was bothering him and he didn't want to talk to anybody, but did so anyway. Once he talked to us from a rollaway bed -- in his underwear -- while smoking, munching on a candy bar and washing it down with some ale.

There were other days when he would talk to us twice as much and tell us twice as much as any other manager. And we'd eat it up. His stories about Barry Bonds, Yogi Berra and Don Zimmer were classics, too.

And there was the way Leyland rode Verlander until he convinced him to do everything he needed to be great. They went at it one day in the trainer's room in Kansas City like you wouldn't believe.

But on the day Verlander threw a no-hitter in Toronto, Leyland said that his ace had figured out everything and wouldn't be stopped from that point forward. And Verlander proved him right, winning the MVP and Cy Young Award that year.

Leyland knew baseball, but even more important, he knew people.

When you know both to the degree Leyland did, you have a very special manager.

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