Leyland gets a tribute, gives a tribute
MAY 10, 2014 3:24p ET
DETROIT -- Jim Leyland's cell phone rang in the middle of a press conference held before the Detroit Tigers honored their retired manager on Saturday afternoon. The ring tone, an elevator music version of "Bad to the Bone," didn't startle Leyland.
His phone ringing while he gathered with reporters was nothing new. "The Skipper" often took brief calls from his children, wife, Yogi Berra, Derek Jeter, Ron Gardenhire or somebody else during his pre-game talks with the media.
And Leyland didn't miss a beat in answering the call, saying, "Hey, Dave, did you cancel the ceremony?"
Everybody roared with laughter at the reference to Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, who hired Leyland to rejuvenate a franchise that had lost 119 games three years before he arrived.
Then Leyland put his phone back into his pocket, and said, "I got invited to Mr. I's box. I haven't been there in eight years."
“You gave me many, many special memories and I will never forget you for that.”
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who would wave down to Leyland during the pre-game ceremony, wants a World Series championship more than anything. Leyland at least got the owner's team to the Fall Classic in 2006 and 2012 for the deepest playoff runs in Ilitch's 22 seasons of signing all those big, fat paychecks.
Not winning it all in Detroit still gnaws at Leyland, who did win a World Series in 1997 with the Florida Marlins. When I asked Leyland what he reflects upon most now that he's had a chance, he said, "It was a great run. The missing piece was the World Series -- which will forever be held against us...The place was packed, and that's what I look at."
His teams here won 700 games, two American League pennants, three Central Division titles, a pair of both MVP and Cy Young awards and a Triple Crown. But most importantly, it won back the fans in Detroit. The Tigers had never before drawn three million fans, but did so four times during the Leyland era.
The fans were a big part of why Leyland agreed to be honored and throw out the first pitch. He said saying good-bye to them was something he didn't really get a chance to do after announcing his retirement in November.
Leyland flung his blue sport coat to the grass in front of the mound at Comerica Park before whirling and waving to the fans in every direction. He quickly tossed the ceremonial pitch to Tigers bench coach Gene Lamont, and its location could best be described as a brush-back pitch to a right-handed hitter.
Then the spry 69-year-old bounced off the mound and hugged Lamont half-way to home plate. And what could be more fitting? They met as Tigers minor league catchers in 1966, playing for Rocky Mount in the Carolina League, and became best friends. Lamont coached for Leyland in both Pittsburgh, where he succeeded him as Pirates manager, and in Detroit.
Leyland was all about relationships, and perhaps has as many friends as anyone in baseball after 50 years in the game.
He said he didn't want all the "hoopla" that comes with being honored. There were no rows of wooden folding chairs filled with friends, family and former players as is often the case for such functions. It was a short, simple and sweet ceremony.
Dombrowski thanked Leyland, saying, "Jim, what great memories...That you helped provide with your leadership."
A leather-lunged fan shouted, "We love you, Jim!"
Leyland, wearing sunglasses, hugged each of the players before grabbing a microphone and doing the one thing he said he wanted to do most.
"You gave me many, many special memories," Leyland told the sell-out crowd, "and I will never forget you for that."
He received a standing ovation in return.
Leyland told reporters that while many fans and reporters disagreed with some of his decisions over the years, he still felt their love and respect.
"They realized my heart and soul were into it," Leyland said. "All in all, I think it was a great relationship."
He still talks daily with Lamont, and gets texts from new manager Brad Ausmus, whom he complimented several times for the job he's doing. And Dombrowski didn't hesitate in keeping Leyland around as a special assistant. "The Skipper" evaluated talent daily during spring training, wearing shorts no less, and has scouted the National League and the Double-A farm club in Erie, Penn. He's headed to Toledo and the organization's string of Class A teams in the weeks ahead.
When told that he appeared to be taking to his new role and more relaxed lifestyle quite nicely, Leyland said, "You can't run a mule in the Kentucky Derby. But I'm doing great; I have no second thoughts."
It was time to leave the dugout -- just as Saturday was time to say so-long to the fans. Leyland has changed jobs, but his heart remains the same. That, along with his soul, always will be deeply rooted in the game and people he loves.