Tigers manager Jim Leyland, left, here talking with designated hitter Victor Martinez, was considered the quintessential players' manager. 'When you've got a guy like Skip, they've got your back,' Tigers utility player Don Kelly said. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — In the aftermath of their disappointing loss in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, the Tigers players got a second dose of bad news.
Jim Leyland announced in the Fenway Park clubhouse after the game his eighth year as Tigers manager would be his last.
On Monday, Leyland made the announcement official.
“Everyone was a little shocked,” catcher Alex Avila said over the phone. “Once he told us, then it was a little emotional.”
Tigers players quickly turned to Twitter to sound off on a man widely regarded as one of the game’s finest players’ managers.
“What an honor playing my first eight years with Jim Leyland,” pitcher Justin Verlander wrote. “A great manager and an even better person. Thanks for believing in me.”
Doug Fister, another starting pitcher, wrote: “Thank you skip! It was a privilege and a blessing to be a tiger under your leadership!”
Torii Hunter and Don Kelly came to Comerica Park for Leyland’s news conference.
Hunter said getting the news after the Game 6 loss was a double whammy.
“That’s double gut punch, and it’s all at once,” Hunter said. “We were physically tired and mentally tired and guys just fell asleep on the plane.”
For Kelly, there was no sign during the final month of the season Leyland was ready to call it quits.
“He still had the passion and the fire to manage and go day to day,” Kelly said. “I don’t think during the year you saw it. It wasn’t like he let on that he was getting tired. He was still going at it hard and enjoying what he was doing.
“It’s a grind; he’s going to be 69 years old and it’s tough, especially during the playoffs, when you’re getting in at 7:30, 4:30 and 9:30 in the morning.”
Former Tigers weighed in, too, including Jeremy Bonderman, who was with the Tigers before Leyland arrived in 2006.
There was a noticeable difference under the new manager, who, in his first year, took a long-dormant franchise to the World Series.
“I was there for three years without him,” Bonderman said. “He just changed the culture of the organization by being who he is.
“He put a stop to the stuff that was going on.”
Bonderman enjoys a close friendship with Leyland, who was instrumental in getting the right-hander another shot with the Tigers this season.
Sean Casey, a Pennsylvania native who grew up rooting for the Leyland-managed Pirates, said he was blessed to get to play under Leyland for two years with the Tigers. And he’s more grateful he gets to call Leyland a friend; the two and their wives frequently dine and attend Penguins games during the offseason.
“He was my favorite manager of all-time,” said Casey, now an MLB Network analyst. “He treated you like a man.
“It didn’t matter if you were Pudge Rodriguez, he wasn’t afraid of anybody. I always respected that.”
It was a delicate balance Leyland perfected.
Avila said Leyland was the king of knowing when to pat you on the back and when to kick you on the rump.
“And you always knew where you stood with him,” Avila said.
Leyland, though, generally stayed out of the clubhouse. He considered that the players’ domain, and mostly left the players to handle the business there.
Hunter, who played 11 years with the Twins and five with the Angels before coming to the Tigers for 2013, appreciated that.
“I’ve never had that — (Angels manager) Mike Scioscia was always in the clubhouse and guys were scared of him,” Hunter said. “(Twins manager Ron) Gardenhire was a fun guy and he wanted to be with the players because he wanted to be one of the players.
“Jim came in and said, ‘Let’s go, boys,’ and went back to his office.”
Hunter’s lasting memory of Leyland, though, will be the fun he brought to the clubhouse and team.
“The relationship I built with him — for him to be a manager — how fun he is is unbelievable,” Hunter said. “He will get fiery, but he’s definitely a funny guy.”
For Kelly, who grew up in Pennsylvania and was a Pirates fan when Leyland managed there, the lasting memory of Leyland will be the faith he always showed in the utility outfielder/infielder, including playing him against the Yankees in Game 5 the 2011 American League Division Series.
“When you’ve got a guy like Skip, they’ve got your back,” said Kelly, who had a home run in the first inning of that 3-2 Tigers victory. “That’s why you want to run through a wall and win a game for him.”