DETROIT — Bringing back Jim Leyland for another season was the right thing to do.
Not every Detroit Tigers fan will agree with that, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
Consider this: In 2005, the season before Leyland arrived, the Tigers were 71-91 and finished fourth in the Central Division. And nobody needs to be reminded of the 119-loss season in 2003.
Since Leyland arrived, the Tigers have made the playoffs three times, plus a Game 163 in 2009. Only once have the Tigers finished below .500, when they were 74-88 in 2008.
In 2006 and this past season, the Tigers reached the World Series. Although they didn’t win either time, as former closer Todd Jones famously said, “You have to be in the World Series to lose the World Series.”
President and general manager Dave Dombrowski, meeting with the media at Comerica Park on Tuesday, left no doubt about his feelings for his manager.
“If you sit down and talk baseball with Jim Leyland and you have the pleasure of doing that — and I’m not saying you’re not going to like his lineup the next day, I’m not going to say you may not want to bring in this guy or that guy — you’ll be floored by how much this guy knows,” Dombrowski said. “I mean, we’re blessed with his knowledge and his hard work, and he’s respected that way around the game, too.
“I mean, it’s not just me saying that. You’re talking about one of the best baseball minds around.”
Dombrowski and Leyland have worked together long enough and know each other well enough that the negotiations for extending Leyland’s contract through 2013 were easy.
“It took about two minutes,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t even think it took that long.”
Leyland was aware by the time the playoffs came around that Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch wanted him back. But Leyland didn’t want anything to overshadow his team and what they were trying to accomplish in the postseason. In fact, Leyland even thanked the media for not making an issue of his lack of a contract extension during the playoffs.
Leyland made it clear after the Tigers lost Game 4 of the World Series that he wanted to continue managing, and he only wanted to manage the Tigers.
“What motivates me is the competition,” Leyland said. “I love it. I’m not ready to give it up just yet. When that moment comes, they won’t have to tell me.”
Although Leyland turns 68 in December, the game has not passed him by. Perhaps he doesn’t pray at the altar of advanced Sabermetrics, as some fans would prefer, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t look at the numbers and decide certain things based on his assessment of them.
Above all else, Leyland’s true gift is dealing with people, from his players to the front office staff to the media to the clubhouse kids to everyone who works at Comerica Park.
Leyland rarely toots his own horn, but even he recognizes that for someone his age, he relates well to young people.
“I think I relate to the young guys, better than the young guys relate to the young guys,” Leyland said. “Maybe that’s because I’ve got a son and a daughter around that age.
“I can kid with them. I know what music they like. I can rap. I can do everything with those guys. I have no problem with that at all.”
If you observe Leyland, he’s always talking to his players, whether it’s in batting practice, in the clubhouse, or just passing in the hall. He’s not just making small talk, he wants to get to know them and see what makes them tick.
That way, when he needs to, Leyland knows how his players need to be motivated. Some might need a pat on the back, some might need a kick in the pants or some might just need to hear a good joke to relieve some of the pressure of the daily grind.
Leyland is also always thinking several moves ahead. And unlike the fans, he is not thinking about just today. Sure, Justin Verlander might be physically able to throw 150 pitches in a game and might even want to, but Leyland is thinking about both that day’s game and Verlander’s career.
With the expected return of Victor Martinez from injury next season, Leyland has already thought about that.
“There’s one thing you know you’re going to need next year: Somebody that can pinch run,” Leyland said. “And I don’t mean that sarcastically at all. I’m talking very common sense because I’m thinking like a manager.
“You’re going to have to run for Victor. You know that, and I don’t mean that disrespectful. That’s just common sense.”
It was common sense for the Tigers to keep Leyland around because if you don’t bring him back, you must have someone better in mind and that person has to be available.