October 22, 2013 at 1:14 am

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers' Jim Leyland: 'Thank you for having me'

The Tigers' Jim Leyland did things his way. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

Detroit — Say what you wish about Jim Leyland — and everybody always did — but there wasn’t anything fake or forced about him. He loved the game, stood up for his players and carried a passion so deep, it could burst at any time.

A true original retired Monday, an old-school guy in a new-age world, one of the most-successful and entertaining managers the Tigers ever had. An eight-year ride of quips and quibbles, and more highs than lows, just ended, and a major void opened.

We probably won’t ever see someone like Leyland again, a moon-walking, gruff-talking baseball lifer. For some of his critics, that’s a good thing. For those who appreciate passion, it’s a sad thing. For the Tigers, it’s a strange thing, as Dave Dombrowski now hunts for someone experienced enough to take over a World Series contender, and confident enough to do it his own way.

Leyland did it his way, right down to his retirement announcement, tinged with tears and loaded with laughter. I always thought his harshest critics missed the point with endless debates about lineups and bunting. Leyland stubbornly dug in at times, but he was one of the most-respected managers in baseball and deftly handled a star-packed clubhouse. Like most things in life, true appreciation likely won’t come unless the new guy fails.

“I probably could get through next year, but it wouldn’t be fair,” Leyland said. “I don’t really think anybody knows what this job entails. It’s a lot more than writing out a lineup and being happy-go-lucky and hitting a few fungoes. It’s time to turn that over to somebody else, and I’m proud to do it. ... From the bottom of my heart, thank you for having me.”

Leyland will remain with the Tigers in some capacity, but at 68, he knew it was time. He knew the exact date he knew it — Sept. 7, the morning after the Tigers beat the Royals 16-2. He told Dombrowski over coffee in a Kansas City hotel, and Dombrowski said he was “very surprised, but not shocked” by the news.

'It's been a thrill'

Leyland wanted it kept private to avoid the distraction. Even after informing his team in the clubhouse Saturday night in Boston, he didn’t want to divert attention from the Red Sox’s victory, and the players obliged by staying quiet.

That says something about a manager who usually has something to say. The Tigers’ run didn’t become a Win-One-For-The-Skipper exercise, because for all his own acclaim, Leyland understands the scope of the game and the focus on the players.

“I’ve protected my players to a fault, and I hope that’s something I take to my grave,” Leyland said, his voice cracking. “It’s been a thrill. I came here to change talent to team. With the help of this organization, I think we’ve done that. We won quite a bit, and I’m very grateful to be a small part of that.”

The Tigers reached the ALCS four times and made it to the World Series twice under Leyland. They didn’t win it all, and he offered a heartfelt apology for that. This season’s ouster was especially painful, and he acknowledged, “We let one get away.”

But in the past eight years, Leyland and the Tigers stirred something Detroit hadn’t seen since the days of Sparky Anderson. There were pennant races and historic individual accomplishments and a quirky manager with 50 years of baseball etched in the lines of his face.

As owner Mike Ilitch poured in resources and pushed expectations higher and higher, the crowds grew, and so did the scrutiny. When Leyland talks about his “fuel starting to get low,” he mostly means all the travel and travails. But the win-at-all-cost demands were energy-sapping too.

Leyland cared about doing things right, never showing up an opponent, not getting involved with, in his words, “the silly (bleep).” At times, he might have cared too much. He would spar with media, one minute saying he didn’t have to explain himself, then spending 10 minutes explaining himself. He cared what fans thought, whether he was getting blasted on sports-talk radio or embraced at the casino. I actually think a large majority of people like him — and liked second-guessing him — although Leyland joked Monday he’d now become “an official member of the Skipper’s Rippers club.”

A class act

He weathered it all, and when the Tigers clinched the division last month, he released it all. He sobbed as he explained how much it meant to deliver another playoff berth to the fans and the city. Then Torii Hunter interrupted the TV interview and dragged Leyland into the clubhouse, the sanctuary he usually tried to avoid.

Players cheered and doused him with champagne, and Leyland’s exit was quick and classic. He jumped up and down, then slid backward with a nifty moon-walk while firing his index fingers at the players.

Scenes like that don’t happen in sports much anymore, and who knows if they ever will again.

“I don’t think there is a Jim Leyland clone,” Dombrowski said. “We’ll find somebody that’s good, but they’ve got some tough shoes to fill.”

The new guy probably needs to have a decent amount of managing experience, preferably at the major-league level. This is a superstar-laden team built to win now. Leyland’s great strength was managing egos and he was tested this season, from Miguel Cabrera’s rest-or-no-rest scenario, to Prince Fielder’s struggles, to Justin Verlander’s machinations.

Do you ever wonder why the Tigers not only attract high-priced stars, but also do a good job of keeping them? Ilitch’s money is a big factor, obviously. So is Leyland’s reputation for treating players fairly, and not putting too much pressure on one guy.

Leyland took his job very seriously, but wisely didn’t take himself that way. His roots were humble: He began his coaching career in the Tigers’ minor-league system and kept scrapping. Sabermetric gurus would rave about younger managers and chuckle at Leyland’s simple request for more “dirtballs” on his roster. Baseball is a numbers game, but over a grueling 162-game schedule, it’s also a people’s game. Player sensibilities must be handled with care, and sometimes with humor.

Leyland swore he wasn’t going to get emotional Monday, but when his voice trembled several times, we were reminded what made him authentic. I’m guessing he held the only retirement news conference in history that included a flatulence joke. It was hilarious, and as media and team personnel laughed, he delivered again.

“Any other questions?” he shouted. “It should be a fun day. You’re rid of me. Be happy! Celebrate! You’re all gonna go out and get drunk.”

Leyland left ‘em laughing, and left ‘em wanting more. He might not be fully gone, but he will be missed.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Tigers president, CEO and GM Dave Dombrowksi, left, said he was 'surprised, ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
More Bob Wojnowski