Jim Leyland’s career with the Tigers began in 1963 as a minor-league catcher, and continued in the early 1970s as a minor-league coach and manager.
By 1979, he had reached Triple A, in Evansville, and always dreamed what it would be like to be managing up just one more level.
But that same year, the Tigers hired a sure-fire future Hall-of-Famer in Sparky Anderson. In 1982, Leyland made the hard choice to leave the organization and join Tony La Russa’s staff with the White Sox, In 1985, Leyland was finally a major-league manager, with the Pirates.
“I really never thought I’d get to manage the Tigers,” Leyland said. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a player. Then I got as high as Triple-A managing, and I thought what it would be like to manage in old Tiger Stadium, and manage the Detroit Tigers. That’s a pretty good job.
“I managed at old Tiger Stadium, but I was in the other dugout. I wanted to be in the third-base dugout, not the first-base dugout.
“Finally, it worked out.”
It worked out at Comerica Park, but Leyland still got to manage his beloved Tigers — and that’s the reason, he’s well aware, he’s being inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame this fall.
The 2017 class was announced Tuesday, and was highlighted by Leyland, former Michigan basketball star Jalen Rose and former Pistons “Bad Boy” Dennis Rodman.
The ceremony is Friday, Sept. 15, at The Max M. Fisher Music Center. Tickets are $25, and available at mshof.org. The class also includes former Michigan and NFL football player Jon Jansen (Clawson), long-time Oakland basketball coach Greg Kampe, former Michigan State football player and NFL official Dean Look (Lansing), former Michigan State and NFL football player Andre Rison (Flint), and longtime Detroit Free Press sportswriter Mitch Albom.
“It basically means I got the opportunity to manage the Tigers,” Leyland said of the recognition. “As a kid, I was with the Tigers for so many years, grew up in their organization.
“It was the team I wanted to manage forever.”
Leyland, 72, now an adviser in the Tigers front office and a special consultant to commissioner Rob Manfred, managed the Pirates for 11 seasons, turning around that franchise, before spending two seasons with the Marlins, winning the 1997 World series championship.
He left the Marlins after a fire sale, and signed on with the Rockies. So miserable there, he left after one year, leaving gobs of money on the table.
And at that point, Leyland thought his managerial career was over.
Then he got the call he’d waited decades for, in the fall of 2005, from Dave Dombrowski, his old boss with the Marlins. Dombrowski had a new challenge, orchestrating the Tigers’ turnaround, and he wanted Leyland.
It was a no-brainer for the kid from Perrysburg, Ohio.
“What a thrill,” said Leyland, the first Tigers manager to be inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame since Anderson in 1992 and the first Tiger of any stripes since former closer Willie Hernandez in 2012. “Certainly, this is an honor I owe to the Detroit Tigers organization.”
Leyland took over a team with two superstars — Magglio Ordonez and Pudge Rodriguez — and the rest mostly relatively unknown players, many of whom were on the roster three years earlier when they lost 119 games, and led the Tigers to a stunning 95-67 record in 2006, a season that ended with the franchise’s first trip to the World Series since 1984. He also led Detroit to the World Series in 2012.
Both times, the Tigers lost.
But the Leyland era always will be synonymous with one of the greatest era of Tigers baseball, with 700 regular-season wins in his eight seasons, and four trips to the postseason. Leyland retired following the 2013 season, which ended with a crushing loss to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.
No other Tigers manager led the Tigers to more than three postseason appearances.
“It’s a big honor. It’s not anything I take lightly,” said Leyland, who finished his major-league managerial career with a 1,769-1,728 record over 22 seasons, and is so respected throughout baseball circles (he led Team USA to a title in the latest World Baseball Classic this past spring), he might be going to the Baseball Hall of Fame one day.
“I’m very grateful, and kind of surprised, to be honest with you.”
Almost as surprised as the day that phone call finally came.
He was going to manage the Detroit Tigers.