There will be plenty of hugs, backslaps and big smiles when the Detroit Tigers greet Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, their former hitting coach, before Friday night’s game between the two teams at Safeco Field.
McClendon was along for the whole ride during Jim Leyland’s eight years as manager — through two World Series appearances, three consecutive Central Division titles and the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years in Miguel Cabrera.
When the Mariners hired McClendon in November, Alex Avila called him immediately.
"I congratulated Lloyd," Avila said, "and then I said, ‘Now that we have to face you, we’re going to kick your a**.’ He piped right back: ‘We’re going to kick your a**!’
"That great fire … with Lloyd, it’s always there."
Seattle hired McClendon to attempt to do something only one of 15 previous franchise managers, Lou Piniella, has accomplished: posting a winning record and turning the Mariners into contenders. The Mariners also added a mega free agent, second baseman Robinson Cano, and are 26-27 through Thursday.
McClendon was special to Tigers players, who say he will be just as important to the Mariners. McClendon worked hard, made it fun and treated the players with respect.
"In the offseason, he would call us," Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson said. "He wanted to make sure you were comfortable and kept tabs on you. That says an awful lot about who he is."
Current Tigers bench coach Gene Lamont succeeded Leyland as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1997, and McClendon took over for Lamont in 2001. McClendon was let go by Pittsburgh in September 2005, having posted a 336-446 record. But no manager could win with the low-budget Pirates from 1993 through 2012.
Now McClendon gets a chance with a team that features a quality rotation led by "King" Felix Hernandez (7-1 2.57 ERA), who’s not scheduled to face Detroit this weekend, and a bona fide star in Cano.
McClendon also has the perspective that comes with failure and the improvement that comes with self-examination.
"He told me that the first time around, he was not as patient as he is now," Avila said.
McClendon’s probably looser, too. At his hiring press conference, when asked what he picked up from Leyland, McClendon said, "I’m a good smoker now, and I’ve got some mean underwear."
How did McClendon impact Tigers hitters, and what do they remember most about him?
Torii Hunter: "We had a lot of fun with him, and we were able to talk the game all the time. He played with Barry Bonds and so many great players. He talked about drills that Barry used that I now use. I picked his brain about so much. He stored it up, and I took it out — all that knowledge he had."
Jackson: "The biggest thing with him was making sure that you had that confidence in your hitting, no matter what. He would do that just by being reassuring and making sure that if you stick with the plan, you will come out of struggles."
I said, ‘Now that we have to face you, we’re going to kick your a**.’ He piped right back: ‘We’re going to kick your a**!’
Avila: "He pushed an attitude that is important. Lloyd wanted you to be confident."
Don Kelly: "He was so positive and fun to work with, and he always had your back. His biggest thing was saying, ‘Bite the ball.’ That meant to get off your back foot and into a more aggressive position."
His former hitting pupils were asked what will help McClendon be a successful manager.
Hunter: "He’s for the players. He understands how hard it is in this game. But now he has to make the tough calls. He has to make big decisions in the game, tell guys they are going down to the minors."
Jackson: "He has the ability to connect with the players, and that’s not easy to do with 25 players. He connected with the pitchers, too. That’s a big thing from a human being standpoint. And, oh, yeah, we talked about life, too. Lloyd was always there for you."
Avila: "The most important thing about Lloyd is that he’s a great person. He learned a lot here about managing — not only from Jim Leyland — but by gaining experience in handling players. It’s not easy to get the best out of 25 players."
Kelly: "Lloyd’s an intense competitor and a players’ manager. He did a good job of getting his feet wet in Pittsburgh and will do an incredible job in Seattle."