In November 1985, longtime baseball man Syd Thrift, the new general manager of the Pirates, made his first splash, hiring a little-known baseball lifer named Jim Leyland.
It certainly was a bold move, given the man Leyland was replacing, Chuck Tanner, was a legend, having won a World Series with the “We Are Family” Pirates in 1979.
Leyland received a modest one-year deal.
Talk about coming full circle. In the end, which came Monday in a surprise announcement, Leyland also was working on a one-year deal, this time by his choosing.
Leyland was 40 when he got his first break after more than two decades in the game — first as a poor-hitting minor league catcher, then as a coach and a manager in the Tigers system before the man who became his best friend, Tony La Russa, in 1982, gave him a crack at coaching third base for the White Sox.
What if Thrift never called, though? What if, instead, he decided experience was more important?
Well, then there’s a chance the world never would have come to know Leyland, who turned the Pirates around, winning three straight division titles in the early 1990s, then won a World Series with the Marlins before reviving a long-dormant Tigers franchise. Only 14 managers have more than Leyland’s 1,769 victories.
There’s obviously a chance Leyland soon will be heading to the Hall of Fame.
All because Thrift, an Army vet with a southern drawl, rolled the dice on a fresh face.
When the Leyland news broke, everyone started compiling their candidate lists and making the appropriate phone calls. And so many of the names were familiar.
Dusty Baker, just out as Reds manager.
Eric Wedge, recently out as Mariners manager.
Jim Tracy, a couple years removed from the Rockies job.
Ozzie Guillen. Manny Acta. Charlie Manuel.
Coaching is a funny business. You’re hired to be fired, but the membership dues buy you entry for a lifetime, and there’s always another job.
But those obvious candidates aren’t always out there. Certainly, not this offseason.
Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski knows this. He also knows this team — which has deep talent, in the lineup and rotation — will be good in 2014 and for years to come, and may not need experience as much as personality and savvy from his next manager.
So, why not think outside the box than simply starting up the old retread machine?
Everybody was given their first shot at some point. La Russa. Bobby Cox. Sparky Anderson. Joe Torre. Earl Weaver. Tommy Lasorda. Whitey Herzog. They weren’t born Hall of Famers, and all were, at one point, puzzling hires.
Let’s head back to 1985 and ’86 for a moment.
The same offseason the Pirates hired Leyland, the Braves took the Pirates leftovers and hired Tanner. That lasted a little more than two disastrous seasons. The same offseason, meanwhile, the Twins gave their job to some nobody named Tom Kelly, who went on to win two world titles.
Early in 1986, the Mariners shuffled things up and went with Old Faithful, Dick Williams. The results weren’t good, and he was a goner before the end of the 1988 season. Also in 1986, the Mets were celebrating a World Series title with their manager, Davey Johnson, a newbie when he was hired before the 1984 season.
Of course, going with a new guy doesn’t always work. It didn’t with Alan Trammell, whom Dombrowski hired and fired.
Then again, nobody’s foolish enough to deny the obvious: Talent, more than a manager’s instincts, plays the primary role in determining success and failure.
History pays off
Dombrowski has taken over three stagnant franchises — Montreal, Florida (now Miami), and Detroit. He left the Expos before they got good, but when it was time for the Marlins and Tigers to win, he turned to the same man: Leyland.
Both times, it paid dividends. The Marlins won the title in 1997, Leyland’s first year. And the Tigers, three years removed from an American League-record 119 losses, went to the World Series in 2006, Leyland’s first year.
Leyland’s not an option this time. Nor is La Russa (retired), Francona (Indians), Joe Maddon (Rays) or Ron Gardenhire (Twins).
Sure, the old standbys are there, including a pair of men on Leyland’s staff, Lloyd McClendon, who hasn’t managed since 2005; and Gene Lamont, who hasn’t managed since 2000.
But so are some intriguing men who haven’t yet been managers in the majors — Brad Ausmus, Rays bench coach Dave Martinez, Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo, Tigers third base coach Tom Brookens and even Carlos Guillen.
The Cardinals, after La Russa called it quits following that magical 2011 championship season, opened some eyes when they gave the job to true novice Mike Matheny. Tonight, Matheny will manage the Cardinals in the opening game of the World Series.
The White Sox got caught thinking way outside the box when they toyed with the idea of making Paul Konerko a player-manager. They then came back in the box, slightly, and went with rookie Robin Ventura, who nearly dethroned the Tigers atop the Central in 2012. The Phillies just hired Ryne Sandberg. The Reds hired Bryan Price. And the Nationals might soon hire Matt Williams.
None are retreads. They’re all refreshing.
And, who knows? One might just be the next Maddon.
Or the next Leyland, who might never have had the chance to manage if not for one man in Pittsburgh who believed in first chances.