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Column: ’I had an idea I wasn’t going to make it’

Updated at: 02/11/2013 11:08 PM
By JIM LITKE

Detroit manager Jim Leyland arrived at the Tigers’ training camp Monday in Lakeland, Fla., marking 50 seasons since he first showed up there as a pencil-thin 18-year-old prospect.

If you were expecting sepia-tinged memories about a kid from Ohio basking in the sunshine and seeing his dream laid out in front of him, well, you don’t know Leyland. Or at least not well enough.

"I remember going over to watch the big-league guys as soon as I got there and saw the caliber of play. And shortly after that, I had a good idea I wasn’t going to make it _ not as a ballplayer, anyway," he recalled during a telephone interview.

He was right. Leyland’s first paycheck was for $125, "and that was for two weeks," he chuckled. He went on to become, in his own words, "a Double-A backup, flunky catcher" who never hit better than .243.

"I hung around for seven years in the minors and they (the Tigers organization) decided the rest for me. First, they made me a player-coach and then one of the fellas who was supposed to manage the rookie league team wandered off somewhere, so they said, `Why don’t you give it a try?’ That was 1971," he added. "So things worked out pretty good.’

Leyland is so understated it’s easy to get the impression that his career and all that success _ almost 1,700 wins, three manager of the year awards, a World Series title and runner-up finish in 2012 _ were little more than a string of happy accidents. In truth, for most of his career, Leyland was rarely in the right place at the right time long enough for lightning to strike.

He spent his first 11 seasons managing in five different towns at different levels of the minors, occasionally stuck with teams so bad that a half-dozen errors and 10 walks per game were routine. He endured eating in truck stops and being stranded on two-lane highways alongside buses with flat tires at 4 o’clock in the morning. When Leyland finally made it to the major leagues in 1982, with an assist from close pal and then-White Sox manager Tony La Russa, it was as a third-base coach.

"It didn’t take long to see just how good he was, but I knew a little about that when we got him," La Russa said. "I managed against Jim the first time in Triple-A in 1979, and we did it a lot more than I wanted to after that. He’s got a real passion for competing."

Turns out Leyland has a passion for more than just competing, though the rest of us rarely see it. La Russa laughed out loud when told how the only story Leyland recounted about his first visit to Lakeland was realizing he wasn’t a good enough ballplayer to carve out a living for long.

"That’s perfect," said La Russa, who retired after the 2011 season. "Jim’s a funny guy, engaging and interesting and fun to be around _ when it’s just coaches and players. He likes to sing, too, but almost nobody knows it, because he takes being the leader of the team seriously, at least when he thinks it’s time to compete. ... So not being nostalgic, not wanting to sound distracted, that’s Jim, too. It just means he’s already in compete mode."

Those who don’t know Leyland as well should wish he cut himself more slack. He often comes off as a baseball lifer buffeted by a series of headwinds who loves the game a lot more than it loved him back.

Leyland got his first big-league managing job in Pittsburgh and lost the NL Championship Series three years in a row. Tougher still was hanging on after the cost-conscious Pirates’ organization effectively gave up, letting guys like Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds slip away, before they started cutting to the bone. Leyland eventually migrated to Miami, where he hoisted the World Series trophy and gave a brief emotional speech.

"This is for all the minor league managers, the guys in the instructional leagues. So don’t give up."

But the very next season, the Marlins did, conducting a fire sale that left Leyland shaking his head and eventually fleeing to the Colorado Rockies. After a season there, convinced he’d let himself, his ballplayers and the organization down, Leyland walked away from the game.

"We’ve talked a lot over the years and believe me, he left money on the table there," La Russa said. "But every year, Jim and I would have the same discussion about managing, with the same questions: Are you fired up to do the job? Is the club responding to your leadership? Do you have the confidence of the front office and ownership? I’m pretty sure Jim didn’t sign up for this year until he checked his gut."

General manager Dave Dombrowski, who met La Russa and Leyland when he was a young front-office assistant in Chicago three decades ago, is certain all the stars are aligned. He knows few managers could get over the way Detroit was clobbered by San Francisco in the series last year and that none would come back any hungrier.

"If most of what you know about Jim is seeing him talking after games _ giving short, gruff answers _ you wouldn’t know how much baseball means to him," Dombrowski said. "He’s seen just about everything and he still loves everything about it. He just doesn’t always come across that way."

And that’s the only shame. To make ends meet at various times, Leyland stamped out windshields at a General Motors plant, delivered mail and hauled construction materials around. But even now that he’s flush and in control of one of a handful of serious contenders, he isn’t about to loosen up.

"I never thought all those days ago about making it or not making it," Leyland said. "I’m just happy they kept me around long enough to find a way I could stick."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him on Twitter.com/JimLitke.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)