Jim Leyland exits the dugout after a career that will earn plenty of Hall of Fame consideration
Two days after the Tigers were ousted from the American League Championship Series, Jim Leyland announced his retirement from managing. One of the era’s most colorful skippers as well as one of its most successful has decided that at 68 years old, he’s ready to turn his job over to a younger man. His success will garner him strong consideration for the Hall of Fame, but his case may be haunted by the number of times his teams came up just short. Even so, he’s certainly left his mark on the game.
Leyland was the era’s archetype of an old-school manager, as he went from looking ancient at the start of his career to actually being ancient, at least in baseball terms. Prematurely gray – at 42, he looked 20 years older – and known for sneaking cigarettes between innings, he cut an indelible image in the dugout and in front of a microphone. His dry wit and blunt language made him a media favorite, and despite a gruff exterior and a knack for getting his money’s worth from umpires when the situation merited it, he earned a reputation as a players’ manager. That sometimes worked against him, as he was prone to sticking with struggling players longer than most other managers — a particular vulnerability in a short series. He wasn’t afraid to show a softer side, either; here he is choking up when asked by yours truly about utilityman Don Kelly, whose 2011 Division Series Game 5 home run helped oust the Yankees:
Even with a six-year, mid-career gap in his resumé, Leyland ranks 14th all time in games managed (3,499), 15th in wins (1,769) and 10th in losses (1,728) ahead of Hall of Famers such as Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams and Earl Weaver. He spent 22 years at the helm of the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies and Tigers and finished first or second in his division 11 times. He took both Pittsburgh and Detroit to three straight League Championship Series, and won a World Series with upstart Florida in 1997.
A light-hitting backup catcher in the Tigers’ minor league chain from 1964-1970, Leyland soon graduated to managing their A-ball team. He spent a decade as a minor league manager (1972-1981) — handling a young Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson and Dan Petry, among others — before joining Tony La Russa’s White Sox staff in 1982. After four seasons as Chicago’s third-base coach, he became manager of the Pirates in 1986. He lost 98 games in his first year at the helm, but the 21-year-old centerfielder whom he stuck with as he hit .223/.330/.416 would grow up to be Barry Bonds, who won a pair of MVP awards and helped the Pirates win three straight NL East titles while averaging 96 wins from 1990-92.
Fellow slugger Bobby Bonilla, acquired from the White Sox in mid-1986, joined Bonds in the top three in MVP voting in two of those years. Alas, the Pirates lost three straight National League Championship Series. In 1990, they fell to the Reds in six games, and in 1991 and 1992 to the Braves in seven, with that last one being the most agonizing loss of all. Up 2-0 in the ninth inning of Game 7, Leyland stuck with flagging ace Doug Drabek and closer Stan Belinda long enough to trigger a three-run rally, with pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera plating David Justice and Sid Bream with a pennant-winning single.
Despite their status as a powerhouse, the Pirates couldn’t keep their core together due to financial constraints. Bonds stewed about his contract as early as the spring of 1991; check out this famously blue clip of Leyland chewing him out at the batting cage (very NSFW):
Bonilla departed via free agency after the 1991 season, and Bonds and Drabek followed after 1992. Though stripped of his stars, Leyland remained at the helm of the Pirates for the first four seasons of what became a 20-year run of sub-.500 futility before jumping to Florida in 1997.
With a roster built by former White Sox assistant general manager Dave Dombrowski, the Marlins — who had entered the NL as an expansion team in 1993 — loaded up on established stars such as Bonilla, Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield and Devon White. In Leyland’s first year, they won 92 games and the NL wild card. Florida then dispatched Bonds’ Giants in the Division Series and the Braves in the NLCS before winning a thrilling seven-game World Series against the Indians that wasn’t decided until the 11th inning of the finale. Alas, owner Wayne Huizenga ordered Dombrowski to dismantle the team; by May, most of the Marlins’ stars were gone, and a disgusted Leyland resigned after a 54-108 season — something worth remembering when his career .506 winning percentage is called into question.
Leyland signed a three-year deal to manage the Rockies, but after a 72-90 finish in 1999, he conceded that his heart wasn’t in it and resigned. He spent six years away from the dugout, and became a scout for La Russa’s Cardinals. Dombrowski, by this time the president/CEO/general manager of the Tigers, hired him as manager following the 2005 season, the franchise’s 12th in a row below .500; they ran through six managers in that time, from Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson through local legend Alan Trammell, losing a near-record 119 games under the latter in 2003. The turnaround under Leyland was instantaneous; he led the 2006 team to 95 wins, a wild card spot — their first postseason appearance since 1987 — and their first pennant since 1984.
The Tigers finished above .500 in six of Leyland’s eight seasons at the helm, and right at .500 in one (2010). Their 2009 season ended in disappointment, as they blew a seven-game September lead and lost a Game 163 play-in on the heels of slugger Miguel Cabrera’s arrest for an alcohol-related domestic violence incident in the final week of the season.
Aided by Cabrera’s return from the precipice and maturation into the game’s top hitter as well as the development of Justin Verlander into a true ace, Detroit developed into a juggernaut. The Tigers won the AL Central title in each of the past three years, advancing to the ALCS in 2011 and 2013 and the World Series in 2012, though they were swept that year by the Giants. During Leyland’s time in Detroit, only the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Phillies had higher winning percentages than the Tigers’ .538.
It’s not a huge surprise that Leyland is retiring. He had gone year-to-year with regards to his contracts in each of the past three seasons, and began this one as the game’s third-oldest manager behind 70-year-old Davey Johnson and 69-year-old Charlie Manuel, both of whom have since retired. As he said at his press conference on Monday, he left on his own accord, having decided back in September that it was time: “The fuel was starting to get low.” Losing to the Red Sox in the ALCS, when the team was just eight outs away from forcing a Game 7 in which it would have had Verlander on the mound, was particularly crushing. As Leyland said in defeat, “This one hurt bad, because I thought we let one get away. We did it collectively, there’s no one culprit… This is one that’s going to stick with me.”
Leyland will remain with the organization in some capacity next season. Third base coach Tom Brookens and former Tigers catcher Brad Ausmus are among the likely candidates to replace him in the dugout.
Will Leyland wind up in Cooperstown? He’s got a number of things going for him. For one, he’s one of just eight managers to win pennants in both leagues. Four of the other seven — Anderson, Whitey Herzog, Joe McCarthy and Williams — are already in the Hall of Fame and La Russa is headed there. Yogi Berra, who won with the ’64 Yankees and ’73 Mets, is enshrined as a player, leaving Alvin Dark as the only other one from the group on the outside looking in.
As noted above, Leyland outranks many enshrined managers in terms of games and wins, though he’s behind contemporaries La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Lou Piniella in those categories — the first three of whom are obviously Cooperstown-bound. The only manager with more wins who is definitively outside the Hall is Gene Mauch (1,902); Piniella has more wins (1,835) and a higher winning percentage (.517) but just one pennant. In all, Leyland went to the playoffs eight times with three different teams; among contemporaries, only Cox (16), Torre (15) and La Russa (14) have more. He’s one appearance ahead of Piniella and Dusty Baker and two ahead of Johnson despite spending a larger chunk of his managerial career in the pre-Wild Card Era, when only four teams made the cut for October.
Leyland’s .506 winning percentage may be the biggest knock against him, but it’s worth noting that Connie Mack (3,731 wins with a .486 winning percentage), Bucky Harris (2,215 wins at a .493 clip) and Wilbert Robinson (1,399 wins, .500 winning percentage) are all in, as is Casey Stengel (1,905 wins at a .508 clip). While he’ll never be confused with Stengel from a tactical standpoint or a championship count, Leyland and all of the aforementioned are weighed down by years in which the deck was obviously stacked against them — in his case, 1993-96 in Pittsburgh and 1998 in Florida. Excluding those years, he had a 1,456-1,297 record and a .528 winning percentage, reasonably comparable to four-time pennant winner Williams’ 1,571-1,451 record and .520 percentage.
That’s some significant “yes, but…” to ignore when considering any Hall of Fame case, and in combination with so many near-misses, it may leave him short of enshrinement. But for all of his heartbreaking moments, he enjoyed far more success than most of his peers, and will stand as one of the era’s most memorable and colorful managers.