Jim Leyland is the rarest of baseball creatures: A manager who never was fired despite a long career. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
They are grizzled, leathery men, lodge brothers who work in peril. Any glory is fleeting and there is the annual question: “What are you going to do next year?”
The pay is excellent, but the worries never end. Every smart aleck in town knows he, or she, could do a better job — and never is shy about saying so.
The day these professionals are hired they know that the day will come when they are fired. The ziggy is always there, next to the writing on the wall.
But plenty of them come back in new towns making the same hackneyed promises. They become vagabonds — hopping with their profession from city to city. Pittsburgh to Miami to Denver to Detroit. Or Los Angeles to Washington.
They are dart boards with bull’s-eyes etched onto their chests.
They are the managers of the baseball franchises in Bud Selig’s prosperous empire.
Baseball managing is a floating crap game.
Jimmy Leyland fit the mold, pretty much. With a rare exception. Gray, well-traveled, with harpoon scars all over his thick skin. He learned the requisite diplomacy a manager must have. A baseball lifer. Good field, no hit!
Donnie Mattingly would like, someday, to fit that mold. Young, still with his black hair. Already some of the harpoons scars appearing on his body. Gutty enough to challenge his bosses into a game of chicken. A baseball lifer. Good hit, good field!
These were the managers in the news this week — the two guys who might have been matching managerial wits this World Series week. But they just missed.
Paying their dues
Two days after the Tigers lost to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, Leyland resigned from his job as manager of the Tigers.
Three days after the Dodgers lost to the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, Mattingly challenged the club’s ownership to quit treating him like a lame-duck serf.
Both guys are still bleeding from the lingering wounds from the bleats of their critics.
Leyland endured eight seasons of carping from the great unwashed in Detroit.
He yanked his starting pitchers too fast.
Or he left them in too long.
He brought in the wrong guy from the bullpen.
Or played the wrong guy in left field.
His teams had a terrible habit of folding up after the All-Star Game. He couldn’t get the ballplayers to play the distance.
The gripes were tagged onto every newspaper web story in town, cliché style, every day.
Leyland went into the postseason as senior member of the lodge. He became a major league manager in 1986, in Pittsburgh.
Davey Johnson — Mets, Reds, Orioles, Dodgers and lastly the Nationals through the end of the past regular season — had been the senior guy, starting in 1984.
Johnson had fit perfectly into the managerial stereotype. Wizened, experienced, a baseball vagabond — a guy who won a World Series in ’86 with the Mets. He supposedly resigned in Washington — but he’d been fired often enough to know when to surrender the job.
Typical were Charlie Manuel and Dusty Baker — both itinerant, semi-successful managers. Both had hopped from club to club. Both were recently fired.
Manuel had managed the Indians with limited success before he was fired. Then he managed the Phillies into two recent World Series, winning one. He was fired in Philly late in the 2013 season.
Baker was fired earlier this month, fresh from the Reds’ elimination from the playoffs. He had previously managed the Giants and Cubs.
Manuel, who is nearly two years older than Leyland, and Baker yearn to manage again. Both have campaigned publicly about managing the Tigers. So have former big league managers Lloyd McClendon and Gene Lamont, coaches on Leyland’s staff in Detroit.
Escaping the firing line
In the quaint spectacle of musical chairs, there are false reports, rumors, interviews, news leaks — all during Selig’s censorship embargo forbidding major news announcements during the World Series.
Wikpedia, the Internet search engine, Saturday morning very briefly listed in Charlie Manuel’s biography under manager: “Detroit Tigers, 2014.” It was there, unverified, and moments later when I checked back the listing was gone.
Jim Leyland was the exception; different from Manuel, Johnson, Baker and Eric Wedge. Different even from Tony La Russa, who was fired from his first managerial job with the White Sox.
And Jim was proud of the distinction.
“You’ve never been fired, have you?” I asked Leyland one day a couple of years ago back in Detroit.
“Nope, I’ve never been fired,” he responded, feet up on his desk, nonchalant in the clubhouse at Comerica.
Not bragging, just stating a fact.
Sparky Anderson got it. Fired not long after winning World Series in Cincinnati, later shoved out in Detroit. Joe McCarthy got it, Casey Stengel got it, Joe Torre got it — most every guy who ever dared to became a manager got it.
But not Jim Leyland. Not in Pittsburgh, not in Florida, not in Colorado; now not in Detroit.
His secret was kept, shhhh, for six weeks.
Lips sealed. Amazing in this era of blogging and rumors and every person with ownership of a computer playing in journalism.
Nothing dropped until last Monday morning after the Saturday night before in Fenway Park.
It was not so quiet in Los Angeles.
Don Mattingly, on Monday, appeared at a well-chronicled press conference with Ned Colletti, the Dodgers’ general manager. Mattingly does not pack the credibility nor the discipline of a Jim Leyland. He is not yet Torre. He was roasted much of the early 2013 season.
In June the Dodgers were wallowing so low in the standings, Mattingly was almost fired. He is an exceptionally candid guy for a manager. He admitted that he was on the brink of discharge.
The Dodgers rallied and with an historic run won their division, then their Division Series against the Braves. Mattingly said winning a playoff series kicked in his one-year option to return in 2014.
Even as he was winning he could not escape his critics. In one playoff game, he was blasted for yanking Adrian Gonzalez, one of the Dodgers’ most dangerous hitters, for a pinch runner. The move was nonsensical.
At the press conference, Mattingly demanded that Dodgers give him a long-term contract. He said, for public information, that his one-year deal for 2014 made him feel like a lame duck.
It came out as an “or-else” challenge. Quickly, Mattingly retreated. It was announced that the parties will confer.
The affair will be settled — soon after Selig lifts his World Series gag order.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column on Sundays at detroitnews.com.