October 30, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Lynn Henning

Lloyd McClendon's 'character, desire to win' might not be enough to sway Tigers

Lloyd McClendon was a Tigers coach for all eight years that Jim Leyland was manager. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

You don’t need a high-tech pollster to tell you the obvious as Detroit’s search for a new baseball manager grinds along.

Tigers fans want new blood. A fresh face. Someone different from the Jim Leyland administration. One manager and his staff have been at Comerica Park for eight seasons, and, like a two-term presidency, long-term familiarity tends to move the electorate toward new people and policies.

This natural urge, all a product of human nature, is making Lloyd McClendon’s candidacy difficult, and perhaps unjust, as Tigers front-office czar Dave Dombrowski wraps up interviews and sorts out his contestants.

It’s clear that Dombrowski is in about the same state of mind as Tigers fans who appreciate the tingle of new people who necessarily bring different ways and approaches to a baseball team.

Were he convinced that McClendon is his man, Dombrowski could have saved himself and a battery of interviewees a lot of work and anxiety by simply anointing McClendon as Leyland’s successor in the hours after Leyland announced his retirement on Oct. 21.

The boss, after all, had six weeks to ponder Leyland’s decision, and McClendon is anything but a mystery to the Tigers general manager and president.

It suggests a new man will be coming aboard. And, if that happens, those of us who have always seen in McClendon strength in supervising big-league baseball players -- as a coach, steward, and clubhouse man -- will say that a former big-league manager got shafted again in his quest to win another job.

Failed chance?

Critics will counter that McClendon had his chance, with the Pirates from 2001-05, and because of his 336-446 record, he failed. Of course, there was this thing called a roster, and the Pirates’ roster during those years was like something from the Buddy Bell-Larry Parrish-Phil Garner years in Detroit. It was guaranteed to get a good skipper fired.

Dombrowski’s choice, and his possible preference for someone other than McClendon, is complicated by the stated and helpful fact he wants his new man to have at least a semblance of experience.

By virtue of those years in Pittsburgh, McClendon has it. And while Tigers fans, some of them, are convinced McClendon is responsible for every out any Tigers hitter ever made, he is widely recognized in big-league circles as a good coach and potential manager whose team, by the way, happened to have led both leagues in hitting in 2013.

He is also African-American. Baseball has had problems here that Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough didn’t quite remedy.

Where are the managers of color? Why didn’t McClendon get another job skippering a big-league team? Why didn’t Bruce Fields, who had done so well in the Tigers farm system and who measures up in every way, get serious consideration for a vacancy after he came to Detroit and later to Cleveland as a coach?

These are fair questions. The fact McClendon is in place, that he has a relationship with the current cast of players, makes his availability and candidacy all the more logical.

But that reality clashes with another, thoroughly benign, desire on the part of a Detroit baseball community to want a new manager and staff in Detroit, which would signal a remodeling project every fan base craves for its team, no matter the sport or the team’s status.

This has to be Dombrowski’s thought, as well. It’s also possible he wants a different style and skill set than McClendon presents. Again, a CEO is entitled to make fair assessments when the responsibility for hiring a new skipper, who is the face of his team, falls in his lap.

McClendon's qualities

It is why a guy he knew in Montreal and who is widely respected by his peers, Tim Wallach, is getting a thorough look. It explains why Brad Ausmus, a familiar name in these parts, and a man with some serious IQ, is at least interviewing.

The outsiders are competing against an incumbent candidate and known quantity in McClendon.

I spoke this week with a couple of cast members from McClendon’s old Pirates team, and both gave him a thumbs-up.

Kip Wells, a starting pitcher there, believed McClendon at first had a difficult time shifting from his playing-days persona in Pittsburgh to the managerial chair. The Pirates were a beaten down organization and it sometimes appeared to McClendon and to his troops that umpires gave them the backseat treatment on calls.

This could make life for all parties a bit contentious as McClendon shared opinions with the umps. But it was something Wells believed was necessary. He also has a hunch McClendon has outgrown that particular habit, due to his maturity and better teams in Detroit.

Kevin Young, a Pirates infielder for 11 years, three of them under McClendon, said McClendon’s “character and desire to win” were what he most appreciated about a man who had a rugged assignment with a roster that was anything but playoff-grade.

“So many times,” Young said, speaking of the Tigers’ situation, “you want change, but you really don’t know what you’re replacing the other guys with.”

It’s a risk Dombrowski understands as he sits through those interviews, looking for a man who can plausibly promise more than his resident candidate can conceivably deliver. It’s a job fans would relish. It’s a job a certain GM in Detroit finds, especially in this case, to be infinitely more complex.


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