Tigers will miss manager who inspired them
Hunter, Kelly among many to praise Leyland for how he handled players
DETROIT -- Two players were in the room with Jim Leyland at the Tiger Club at Comerica Park when he announced his retirement as Tigers manager on Monday morning. One was Torii Hunter, one of the most recognizable players in the game. The other was Don Kelly, the do-everything utility player who could walk down the street in many parts of Michigan and not be recognized.
If you think about it, their attendance was fitting. Together, they represented the two types of players that made Leyland the manager he was. He knew how to handle superstars, and he had a bunch of them at his different stops. But just as important, he knew how to manage the bench players and get the most out of them.
One of his greatest strengths as a manager was to take those two types of athletes, the superstar and the role player, and make them feel like part of a team.
"It's one of those things, he really cares deeply about his players," Kelly said. "When you go out there, the way he treats you, you want to run through a wall for him, go out there and get a win. That's the way he treated me, he treated everybody like that."
Leyland treated Hunter like that before he even became a Tiger, which was part of the reason why he wanted to sign with Detroit last fall.
"When I was with the Twins, this guy, every time we came in to play the Tigers he would make it a point to come over and talk to me," Hunter said. "We'd talk about life, talk about everything. He'd crack jokes. And he wasn't even my manager. Now, that makes me want to play for him.
"I'm definitely honored to have played for him. I can go back and tell my grandkids I played for the great Jim Leyland. But the relationship I built with him before I came here and while I was here, it's special. You're looking at a legend. He has a World Series championship. He managed Barry Bonds. Just getting to know him, he's so down to earth. He's so funny. The moonwalk is the best thing I've ever seen in my life."
Those who had already left for home chimed in on Twitter and online.
What an honor playing my first 8 years with Jim Leyland. A great manager and an even better person. Thanks for believing in me. #HOF- Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) October 21, 2013
A Great MANAGER but a better MAN ,said Good Bye to the dugouts today. words can't describe how much you meant to me THANK U JL !!! God Bless- Brayan Pena (@cuban2727) October 21, 2013
Verlander, as was pointed out during the press conference, was one of two players who were on the Tigers for all eight seasons under Leyland. Ramon Santiago was the other, though he was only up with the Tigers for parts of Leyland's first two seasons.
Verlander, in particular, had an emotional reaction when Leyland told the players of his decision after Saturday's loss at Fenway Park in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
"Justin Verlander was a special one, I think," Leyland said. "I think that's probably because he was here all eight years with me. Normally he doesn't like me. He even told me he loved me. I couldn't believe it. But he was touched, and that touched me a little bit."
Alex Avila wasn't a Tiger in 2006, though he was part of the Tigers family back then. Like Verlander and many other Tigers, though, the catcher counts Leyland as his only Major League manager.
"He was my first manager," Avila told MLB Network Radio. "He was the one that actually gave me an opportunity. And that's the one thing that I'll always remember about him. He was the first one to give me an opportunity, and that's something I'll never forget. And being able to play for him was definitely an honor and something that I'll definitely cherish for the rest of my life."
Avila isn't a superstar, but he isn't a bench player. He's somewhere in between, and as a team leader, he saw how Leyland handles a clubhouse.
"A lot's always talked about a manager," Avila said. "Not only does he have to obviously be able to strategize and look a couple of innings ahead, but also manage the players as far as their personalities, knowing when to pat them on the back [and] knowing when to kick them in the butt. I always thought he was very good at that. I've been on both sides of those things with Skip, and it always seemed at the right time."
Leyland told his players in the moments after Saturday's loss, but asked them to keep it a secret. He didn't want his retirement to take away from the Red Sox's celebration. It's arguably a credit to the respect the players have for him that not a word leaked out until the Tigers announced a Monday morning news conference and reporters started to ask questions.
"You've got your head down, you've lost and the season's over. And then Jim dropped that bomb on us," Hunter said. "And we were like, 'Wow.'"
Some players, and a few coaches, were blindsided by the news. Others saw the way he carried himself during the season, the way he became emotional after the Tigers clinched their third straight division title last month, and started to suspect he might hang it up.
"I just had a feeling that it could've been his last year," Hunter said. "All year he was kind of emotional. I just felt it, and for him to say that, it wasn't a surprise."
Until season's end, just three people knew for sure, and none of them were players. His wife, Katie, knew early on. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski knew, because Leyland had told him on Sept. 7.
"I was surprised, very surprised, when he called me," Dombrowski said of their conversation in Kansas City. "I had no idea what he was calling me about, because I was already having a cup of coffee that Saturday morning.
"I was very surprised. I would say I'm short of being shocked, and I would say the difference was I was surprised because I still saw the passion aspect of it, very much so. I never saw any decline in that whatsoever. But the reason we've gone year by year in the last few years is, when you're around it day in and day out, you realize how this job can just wear you down. So that's why when he said it was time, I anticipated some year he would say that. I didn't necessarily think it would be this year."
The other person who knew was his bench coach and longtime confidante, Gene Lamont. He knew back in July that Leyland was considering this. He knew that Saturday morning in Kansas City that Leyland was going to go to Dombrowski and tell him. And he knew that once he made up his mind, there was probably no going back.
"I knew once he told me that he would probably carry it through," Lamont said.
Third-base coach Tom Brookens did not know until that postgame talk. For him, it was touching on two levels. Leyland was the manager who gave him his chance to coach in the big leagues four years ago, when Detroit needed a new first-base coach and Brookens was managing at Double-A Erie.
But Leyland was also the manager at Triple-A Evansville back in 1979, and his recommendation to Tigers management helped Brookens get the call to the big leagues.
"They wanted Jim to scout Jim Morrison in Oklahoma City," Brookens recalled. "He talked them into bringing up this guy named Brookens. And 12 years later, I retired."
Back in 1979, Brookens said, everybody expected Leyland to be the next Tigers manager. That same year, the Tigers replaced Les Moss with Sparky Anderson, and that chance went away. It took Leyland more than a quarter-century to get his chance in Detroit.
Those who played for him, who won for him, will never forget it.
"You're talking about one of the best managers ever to manage in this game," Hunter said. "In 50 years of baseball, he had a lot of great players, so I definitely think that when he looks back, he can say he gave it all he got. And now he can go home, 68 years old, and he can relax.
"Fifty years of baseball, 14 hours a day, eight months out of the year, I think he deserves to relax, kick back, go to the beach, smoke a cigarette."