February 25, 2014 at 5:35 pm

Retired manager Jim Leyland 'hoping to help' Tigers in new role

Lakeland, Fla. — His back was turned to the only opening in the screen down the right-field line where a foul ball during batting practice could thread its way through.

And sure enough, one did.

But just before the ball beaned former Tigers manager Jim Leyland, which it surely was going to do, media relations director Aileen Villarreal reached up and deflected the ball with as little fanfare as Leyland was hoping would be the trademark of his first day in camp.

“Played outfield,” Villarreal replied, when told she had tracked the ball well — and had saved Leyland from being hit. “Saw it all the way.”

So instead of Leyland’s return to Lakeland being known for a lump on his head, its trademark was the way he said he wants to stay out of the way.

And the strangeness of seeing him with a staff credential around his neck.

“The guy at the gate checked it three times,” said Leyland, who’s now a special assistant to Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski.

Helping him ease back into the picture with the players, though, Leyland played in the team’s golf outing Monday.

So when he showed up at Joker Marchant Stadium for Tuesday’s annual exhibition against Florida Southern College, most of the reunions already had been held.

Initially with the media, Leyland simply said “what’s the scoop?” and moonwalked away. Granted, only two of his steps were of the moonwalk sort, but they instantly conveyed how relaxed Leyland was.

It’s a new life for him — rather, a new and different time for him — but he’s enjoying being retired without being retired.

“It’s a little bit different, obviously,” said Leyland, “but I’m excited about it, and looking forward to it.

“It’s different, but a good different. I have no second thoughts.”

It’s not as if Leyland has totally distanced himself, however, from what’s been going on in Lakeland.

“Brad (Ausmus, new Tigers manager) is doing a terrific job of getting acclimated with the guys,” he said. “It’s a little bit different team with more speed. I’m looking forward to this new chapter.”

It would be understandable, of course, if Leyland’s thoughts turned instantly to managing upon his return to where managing was his job, but he said that’s not been the case.

“I’m already away from that, to be honest with you,” Leyland said. “I’ve talked to Brad a few times, but nothing real specific. He has a great feel for it, I can see that already.

“I’m totally out of the way. I want to make point that perfectly clear. I’m not going into the clubhouse. I’m not going to hang around the players. I’m just here to assist Dave — and to carry out whatever assignments he gives me.”

Ausmus, though, said Leyland would be welcome anytime.

“We talked about 10 minutes or so today about a couple of things,” Ausmus said. “I filled him in on a few things that have gone on. As comfortable as I am with wherever he’d like to be, I’d love to have Jim around.

“I’d like to have him leaning against the batting cage, but that’s Jim’s call on how much he wants to get involved.

“But if he’s not leaning against the batting cage, that doesn’t mean I won’t call on him.”

Getting his greetings out of the way was a hurdle for Leyland on Tuesday.

“I was a little nervous about that,” Leyland said. “The guys couldn’t have been nicer, and fortunately, the golf outing broke the ice a little bit.

“That’s where I saw a lot of them.”

Leyland’s plans are to spend most of the rest of the spring in Lakeland — or visiting other camps when needed.

“I’ll also check out the minors,” he said. “But I don’t consider this an adjustment period at all. If I thought it would be, I wouldn’t have retired (from managing).

“I’m doing what I want to do now. I’ve got some action. I’m not just sitting home.

“Hopefully I can help.”

tom.gage@detroitnews.com

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Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland chats with infielder/outfielder Don Kelly prior to Tuesday's exhibition opener in Lakeland, Fla. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News