Lakeland, Fla. — Twenty-three years.
That’s how long it’s been since Leon “Bull” Durham has been in the big leagues. Twenty-three years in the bushes — six in the Angels system coaching at outposts in Vancouver and Edmonton, and the last 17 with the Tigers coaching hitters at Triple A Toledo.
That’s a lot of bus rides and bad food. Needless to say, his heart could’ve burst with joy, and relief, when he got the call from the Tigers to be assistant hitting coach alongside Lloyd McClendon.
“It gave me a little chill,” he said when he got the call from Al Avila. “Al called me and asked if I wanted the position (chuckling). I said, ‘Hell yeah!’ It’s taken a little while, but it’s been worth it.”
The burning question is — why did it take so long? He made his major league debut at 22. Given all the players he’s mentored and developed into big league players, how could it have taken him roughly the same amount of time, 23 years, to get back?
Don’t think he hasn’t asked himself that question many times over the years.
“I stayed positive and I kept the faith knowing the Lord was going to give it to me when I was ready for it,” he said. “And when I got it, He said it was about time, That’s basically what He was telling me — ‘It’s done, now take care of it. Do your job and be happy.’
“I think that’s where I’m at mentally right now.”
Watching Durham work with hitters at Toledo, so much energy and enthusiasm, always a smile on his face and a bounce in his step, you’d never know the frustration and impatience he was holding inside.
For more than two decades he’s watched other coaches with less experience and shorter resumes get promoted to big-league jobs; some coming straight from their playing days with no coaching experience.
“Just have patience,” he said. “A lot of things went on before me and around me. I was seeing what was happening. But, you have no control over things. So just do your job. Be happy to have a job and be in uniform. This is what I love to do.
“Don’t worry about the things I have no control over. It worked out fine.”
You would be hard-pressed to find a trace of bitterness in the man, despite it all.
“I had no time for that,” he said. “If bitterness would have been a problem, I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t have the relationships with the players that I have today if I had gone to work thinking about a lot of negative stuff. I just never let it bother me.”
He’d already had the experience of being blocked once before, at the start of his playing career.
He came into the St. Louis Cardinals camp in the spring of 1980 coming off a year where he hit .310, with a .555 slugging percentage (23 homers, 33 doubles) and a .955 OPS at Triple A Springfield. He was named the American Association Rookie of the Year.
And he tore it up that spring, too.
“I led that team in every offensive category, including stolen bases,” Durham recalled. “I hit about .500 and I played every day, four and five at-bats a day.”
On the final spring game, Durham went 3 for 4 with a home run. After the game, manager Whitey Herzog told him he didn’t make the club and to report back to Springfield.
“Bernie Carbo (who had signed a one-year free agent deal for $125,000) had a guaranteed contract and they didn’t want to eat that contract, I guess,” Durham said.
How did he respond? Players were given three days off before they had to report to minor league camp. Durham reported the next day.
“They looked at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” he said. “I told them I got sent out. They said I had three days off and I said, ‘For what? This is what I do, this is what I am here to do — to get better.’ ”
Carbo didn’t last two months and Durham was in The Show on May 24.
Patience. Work. Faith. They served him well as a kid and they have served him well again. And the first call he made after being hired by the Tigers was to the woman who instilled those virtues in him.
“I called my mom,” he said. “She’ll be 90 in April and she’s in 24-hour care. I think she still thinks I’m playing, but she was thrilled. She had two minor heart attacks in December — she always said only the strong survive. The doctors didn’t think she would come up out of the second one.
“They don’t know how she did it. But she’s very faithful and God-fearing and she came through. She knew what I was telling her and she was very proud.”
Durham and McClendon have worked together for over a decade, going back to McClendon’s first stint with the Tigers. McClendon was the manager at Toledo last season. Both coaches have the same philosophy of hitting and both have long histories with virtually every hitter that will be in camp.
“Even Miguel (Cabrera),” Durham said. “I worked with him every spring. It’s not like I have to build fresh relationships. I’ve got the guys to know me and trust me. It takes time to build trust; I already have that with the guys that are here.”
There was another item Durham was able to check off his list this past year — the Cubs finally won a World Series. Durham, who played eight seasons with the Cubs, had been part of the many curses that befell the organization over the 108-year drought.
In the 1984 National League Championship Series, he booted — very Bill Buckner-esque — a ground ball that started a game-winning rally by the Padres in the decisive fifth game.
“The only thing I am going to miss with that highlight, if they shut it down, is that nice body that young man had then,” Durham laughed. “Hopefully they put that to the side now that I’ve seen the Cubs get their World Series.
“Now I have a chance with the Tigers to be in the World Series in 2017. And not only to be there, but to win. Now that the Cubs got theirs, I know I will get mine before I’m done.”