Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Leyland: Detroit Tigers' Hope Diamond

Jim Leyland hoisted from the ground by by his joyous Detroit Tigers team. MLB Photos

DETROIT - Jim Leyland, possessing baseball memories older than some of his young Detroit Tigers, knows he's invested more than just one giddy pennant-winning season in the organization he loves.

Seventeen-plus consecutive dues-paying years in the backwaters of the organization went into this "overnight success" - six as a low-level minor-league catcher, another dozen as either a coach or manager in Detroit's far-flung farm system.

So it is not lost on the 61-year-old Leyland that his first opportunity to wear the classic Tigers powder-white uniform is more than a dream fulfilled.

One week after being carried off on the shoulders of his players following an AL division series upset of the Yankees, Leyland played a major role in delivering Detroit its first pennant since 1984.

"It took me a helluva long time to get here," Leyland told an adoring crowd at Comerica Park Saturday during on-field celebrations following Detroit's American League Championship Series sweep of Oakland.

Always humble and humorous, the former manager of the Pirates, Marlins and Rockies brought a once-proud franchise the credibility it desperately needed.

"Without him, we're not here," Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge said.

"He's just a very good baseball man," said Tigers president Dave Dombrowski, the GM in Florida when the 1997 Marlins managed by Leyland became the first wild-card team to win a World Series.

"You see it in so many ways, from the way he sets a standard that the players have to follow to the way he handles a pitching staff."

Now Leyland has returned yet another wild-card team to the big show, a remarkable comeback for a man who had last managed the 1999 Colorado Rockies before retiring for personal reasons.

Two years ago, a recharged Leyland sought to manage, again, as the Phillies well know. Both they and the New York Mets took looks before the 2005 season.

The Phillies hired Charlie Manuel instead, a decision the often-embattled manager and postseason-starved Phils are sure to be reminded of often in coming days.

The Mets? Willie Randolph, like Leyland, is still managing, in the NL Championship Series against St. Louis.

When Leyland landed in Detroit, the 42-year baseball lifer inherited a team that had lost an alarming 502 games from 2001 to '05, including a near-record 119 in 2003.

The man who had skippered the Pittsburgh Pirates to three division titles (1990-92), among other accomplishments, felt he could change Detroit's culture of losing. All he asked of Tigers, young and old, was that they believe and perform.

"Early on in spring training, we had a lot of good players," Leyland said. "We didn't have a good team. Today I can make the statement that we've got a good team, and that's the thing I am proudest of."

Some changes were needed. Enigmatic first baseman Dmitri Young was kicked to the curb late in the season. An unconventional move? Yes. But quintessential, no-nonsense Leyland.

In this postseason, Leyland has been mischievously mixing and matching lineups - using four different ones in the four-game sweep of the A's.

Along the way, he drew uncanny performances from the most surprising quarters.

Leyland passed over righty bat Marcus Thames (26 home runs) when Oakland started righthander Esteban Loaiza in Game 2. Instead, he used as DH a seldom-used lefthanded batter, Alexis Gomez, a wild swinger once released by the lowly Kansas City Royals and twice designated for assignment by Detroit this season.

Gomez proceeded to homer and drive in four runs in an 8-5 win, astounding considering he had one long ball and six RBIs in 103 at-bats in the regular-season.

That performance led Tigers stopper Todd Jones to quip: "If I walk in . . . and I'm batting cleanup, I'd expect to get a hit.

"We just know when Jim Leyland puts nine guys out there, it's the right nine. Whatever he does is cool with us."