May 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Like it or not, Jim Leyland is one of the best managers of all time

Tigers manager Jim Leyland retired after the 2013 season. The Tigers will honor him before Saturday's game against the Twins at Comerica Park. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

The Tigers are honoring Jim Leyland ahead of Saturdayís game against the Twins at Comerica Park, assuming, of course, that Leyland can be delivered, amid heavy security, past the torches, pitchforks, clubs, and whatever other weaponry his band of critics will have amassed in welcoming him.

OK. Itís not quite that bad, the critics and their hostility toward an eight-year Tigers manager.

But it is astonishingly prevalent. And I just donít get it.

Leyland, whether you agree with baseball people or not, is one of the best managers of all time, and is empirically one of the best skippers of the modern era. That probably will be confirmed when the creditable folks who decide these things consider putting him into the Hall of Fame, which will happen within a few years.

Tony La Russa hired Leyland as a coach 30 years ago because he had managed against Leyland at Triple A and knew how good he was. The Pirates three years later welcomed him, when the franchise was buried. They knew he had the skill set and personality necessary to live with a bad team until it became a good team, which the Pirates later did while Leyland was in charge.

The Marlins courted him because they also knew of Leylandís talents intimately and wanted such a man in charge. He ended up as skipper of a World Series champion.

And when the Tigers and their front-office leader Dave Dombrowski required a manager to bring seasoned skill to a team that was just about ready to become a contender, Dombrowski had one man, and one only, in mind: Leyland, providing Leyland was fully rested and revived following a six-year layoff spurred by his burnout with the Rockies.

I guess we need to review some history ó at least based upon Twitter indictments and e-mail floods that make you wonder if Leyland, or Pee-wee Herman, was running the Tigers from 2006-13.

Came through in the clutch

Leyland and his team made it to the playoffs four times and came within what today would have been a video replay overturn in 2009 (on the pitch that hit Brandon Inge) of perhaps making it five appearances during those eight seasons.

Leylandís teams, in what might be the most remarkable story of Detroitís baseball postseasons during that time, won all four best-of-five division series, three of which happened on the road. Thatís fairly astounding, even if it had nothing to do with the manager, which is what the hostile throngs will say.

Fairís fair. His teams also got beat in a pair of American League Championship Series and won a pair. His teams lost eight of nine games in the World Series. You can pin that on the manager ó which in my view is absurd ó or you can say good pitching shut down good Tigers hitting, which is what objective baseball professionals said in analyzing how the Cardinals and Giants put it to the Tigers.

The manager choked? I got that one this week. It requires this question: Why, then, didnít his Marlins choke in Leylandís first World Series? Why didnít the Tigers choke when they played those gut-constricting fifth games in the division series, especially when they ended at New York or at Oakland?

Well, of course, itís because choking had nothing to do with it. And, besides, if choking is what decides these things, some very good managers along the way ó Joe Torre, Joe Girardi, Ken Macha, Bob Melvin, etc. ó also choked when their teams played the Tigers in these same death-defying situations.

So, weíll bag the choking nonsense. Itís making me gag.

No, the carpers and screechers have other, more salient squabbles with Leyland.

He made bad bullpen decisions. He rested too many players. He didnít bunt. His teams didnít hustle.

And, of course, his teams were bad on ďfundamentals.Ē

Aha! Who can argue? Look at the times his Tigers failed to get down a bunt. Failed to make a play cleanly. Failed to go from first to third.

Yada, yada, yada.

It comes down to players

Those things donít happen with Joe Maddonís teams. With Terry Franconaís teams. And, of course, until his roster went to pieces, those misadventures never occurred on Ron Gardenhireís watch at Minnesota.

Or, perhaps, in that reference to Gardenhire (and in 2014 to Francona, not to mention the year the Red Sox fired him), we see what this is all about, after all.

Itís about players. Always, itís about players.

How else do you suppose Sparky Anderson, a terrific manager who was no better than Leyland, once lost 103 games with the Tigers when 11 years earlier he won 104?

Wow. I suppose some managers would admit to an occasional off-season, but being so bad that you lost 103 games is one doozy of a managerial coma.

Or, again, maybe it was because of rosters, not that Leylandís prosecutors want any part of statistical analysis, except, of course, to say that his all-time winning percentage was .506.

How can you deny, they scream, that he was little more than a .500 manager?

He was, in fact, little more than a .500 manager ó because his rosters, on balance, were what dictated a .506 winning percentage, same as they did for Anderson, or Gardenhire, or La Russa, or any other skipper who has been at the helm of a big-league team.

But thatís too complex for those who want the convenience of one-stop shopping in taking out frustrations for a baseball season that didnít result in a World Series parade.

And there is no easier, more satisfying manner in which to vent, than to pull up to the friendly Blame The Manager store and grab a bag of Get Rid of The Skipper. It feels so doggone good to say one guy, rather than 25, is the issue.

Well, it isnít, and it wasnít in Detroit during those years, except if you care to make this case:

The Tigers have had the best sustained period of baseball in their history since the 2006 season began. They have made it to the postseason an uncommon number of times. They have smashed to splinters all box-office records, with the team four times reaching 3 million in a ballpark with 10,000 fewer seats than it had at Tiger Stadium, which never came close to 3 million.

Their television ratings are record-setting. Their merchandise sales are crazy high for a team from a mid-range market.

And none of this has much to do with Leyland. Except, of course, that he knew how to keep 25 men in order, on and away from the field. Contrary to popular belief, he knew how to make out a lineup, and he was perhaps the best bullpen director of any manager in the gameís history.

And if you care to snort at that last assertion and discuss it with, say, La Russa, feel free. Youíll hear it from one of the gameís all-time smartest and most fair-minded critics why Leyland was superior at handling the most difficult job any manager faces daily: rationing his relief pitchers.

Or better yet, ask Gardenhire. Or Francona. Or Torre. Or even Bobby Cox, whom I asked a year ago to critique Leyland, given the years they had competed against one another.

ďIn overall knowledge of the game, communication, and leadership, heís the total package,Ē Cox said. ďYou could look forever and not find one thing wrong with Jim as a manager.Ē

The cynics will say this is just the fraternity speaking. Of course they will. But baseball people ó the hardcore, unvarnished people whose lives are dependent upon telling the truth about personnel at all levels ó never for a moment have had an issue with Leyland.

They know, for all the reasons dugout dwellers know, how difficult is the job, and how complex is a sport that seems so simple from an armchair, particularly for those who ó oh boy ó have coached some youth baseball.

There is where so many of the howls originate. Baseball is an all-inclusive game. It makes all of us experts. Itís clear, often simple in its execution, and irresistible for a second-guesser.

Thatís what happened to Leyland as his tenure in Detroit played out. He managed no differently in 2013 than he had in 2006, when the town and even his future bellyachers, loved him.

But the crowd had gotten spoiled. It wasnít enough to win. You needed to win all the time, straight through the postseason. And baseball isnít big on granting managers, any manager, that degree of genius.

It is no small matter that they came not to like his irritating habits: eating during postgame interviews, smoking, etc. It enabled them to make a manager a caricature, and, like political cartoons, it led to excesses in illustrating him and his role. It turned into a hecklerís game.

A few detractors

This isnít to say the majority of fans felt this way. They did not, and have not. But those who invest great emotions in the game and who have played it, coached it, or who study it, came during those years, and during those 162-game seasons when losses were a natural part of the calendar, to in many cases grow weary of Leylandís role on a night when the teamís shortcomings werenít as easy to attack as the skipperís supposed frailties.

Thank goodness, the Tigers know better. All of baseball knows better. Detroit was lucky to have had him during those renaissance years.

True, you can draw distinctions between Leyland and the bright man who has replaced him, Brad Ausmus, who is more into defensive shifts than his predecessor and who, with the help of a 200 percent increase in speed, is pushing runners more on the basepaths.

But, again, that is more the product of personnel than pure strategy. Rosters dictate how players are deployed. And this yearís team was constructed with the idea of turning some of its old plodders into sprinters.

Fundamentals? The dart most frequently thrown at Leyland is nonsense, as none other than Ausmus will tell you. His teams have worked no harder, and not really any differently, on ďfundamentalsĒ than Leyland or any manager in either league.

The Tigers and their fans were fortunate to have had Leyland as they will have been blessed by Ausmus. Neither man was, or is, going to win games the players donít allow. But both will have ensured that thereís integrity to the product, from clubhouse, to field, to the occasional postseason champagne showers.

Itís good that the Tigers are saying thanks Saturday to Leyland. Maybe the critics will come to view him as baseball people all along saw him: as one of the gameís best leaders, and men, in a noble sportís history.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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