By: Caitlin Miller
When Jim Leyland was a young boy, one of five boys in his family, his dad a semi-pro ball player, would come home from work and play catch with him and his brothers in the yard until his mother would call them in for supper.
He used those daily sessions to learn the game he’d be involved in all his life, but especially remembers lessons on life that his parents instilled in him.
“My parents were the biggest influence in my life, I think that’s a good thing, that’s where your roots start, where you learn right from wrong, and family values,” says Jim Leyland.
Now 68 years old, having spent all of his adult life in the game of baseball where he won two World Series as a manager and coached some of the legends of the sport. He says how it’s great to have major athletes and stars as your heroes and role models but to him his parents were his and that was what was really important to him.
Leyland was raised in Perryburg, Ohio, he was signed out of high school and was signed as a minor league catcher for six seasons in the Tigers organization in September of 1963. While he was an adequate defensive catcher, his inability to hit professional pitching doomed his playing career at level AA, with a career bating average of .222 in all his minor league games.
Leyland didn’t set out to be a manager or even a coach, but when he realized he was not going to make it as a player, he changed his paths.
“I had no intentions of being a big time coach, even a manager,” he said.
That chance occurred in 1970 after he played just two games for the Montgomery Rebels, then made his debut as a coach for the rest of that season.
In 1982, Leyland left the Tigers organization when he got his first shot to coach in the Big Leagues when he became a third base coach for Tony La Russa with the Chicago White Sox for four seasons. Leyland said that La Russa had a great effect on his career. He said La Russa gave him his first big chance as his third base coach. He said that walking onto a Big League field for the first time was unbelievable; he never thought he would have the chance to do that. He said that it was an Easter Sunday and they weren’t supposed to play because it was snowing. But they did and they won both games.
His career as a Big League coach blossomed until 1985 when he got his first opportunity to manage a Major League team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
While his father was from Butler, and he had heard a lot about the city but he had never been here until he became the 33rd manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was a thrill he said, even though the Pirates were in dismal shape.
General Manager Syd Thrift, who gave him his first shot, famously said about the moribund franchise at the time, “It ain’t easy resurrecting the dead.”
But that’s exactly what Leyland did during his ten years of skippering the Pirates.
Starting with a team that lost 98 game in 1986, he and Thrift built a team that included Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke and among others, Doug Drabek. which took them to the National League Championship Series, first in 1990, then in 1991 and 1992. Even though they lost all three years, this was still a turning point in baseball for not only for the Pirates but Leyland as well.
Leyland’s favorite memory during his eleven seasons with the Pirates, he said his favorite moment was when they clinched the division championship by beating the St. Louis Cardinals in 1990 on a Sunday afternoon.
“That was the best celebration I was ever involved in because we worked so hard. We were so bad when I first got here, we came so far and it was so satisfying.” He talked about how this was the first step; he took the Pirates to win their first championship. He said it was hard work though. At the time the Mets were very good, and they were the hardest team to get by. He mentioned that it was very rewarding.
Coming from a middle class family that instilled a work ethic in him as a child, Leyland diligently paid attention to every detail of his job. He soon realized that no matter how hard he worked, if he did nor have quality players, there was little he could do. He still loved his job, but when the mass exodus of talent occurred after his eleventh season, he saw the end of his tenure with the buccos had come.
Leyland’s tenure with the Pittsburgh Pirates ended the last game in 1996.
Martin Daniel, A long time Pirates fan, was there.
“As soon as he walked out everyone stood up and cheered for him, for a long time,” Daniel said.
While Daniel and almost everyone present were upset about losing Leyland as a manager, just about everyone knew his time to leave had come.
“It was an emotional game, we were playing the St. Louis Cardinals and Tony La Russa, who was one of my best friends, was managing the Cardinals. It was a long day; I had met with some fans, and neighbors. Some media people came out to my house that day and followed me to the ballpark and everything. Ill never forget it, the only problem was we lost the game, which was a heartbreak. I didn’t want to go out that way, but it was a very emotional day.”
Many people were very sad and angry with Leyland for leaving the Pirates.
Ryan Douglass, a former Washington Wild Things player, realized the inevitable.
“Leyland leaving the Pirates was just part of the business in baseball. I know that since I play professionally, but it was a bittersweet moment when he left,” he said.
Leyland took the intense feeling of the fans as a compliment.
“That made me feel like they must of thought I was a good manager if they were mad about me leaving. But the other thing behind that, I was also upset about is that I thought that it was totally unfair. I could see where the Pirates were going at that time, and I think now people realize that proved out to be right. It was 20 years before they won again. I would have been fired about four times before that so that hurt me a little bit.”
Not only were people upset with the fact that Leyland was leaving the Pirates at the time, but they were also afraid of they might leave town.
“So this was just a bad and awkward time for the city,” says John Meyer, former sportscaster for WTAE.
While the team would not leave, Leyland was right about the franchise’s fortunes, as it had losing records for the next twenty years.
“I mean you had to be a fool to think I wanted to leave Pittsburgh,” he said.
This was the place him and his family called home, his wife and children were here. Leyland says, “I met my wife here and we fell in love with Pittsburgh, and she was a Pittsburgh girl. I loved it here and I couldn’t find any reason not to stay here.”
But alas, he soon found a new job as manager for the Florida Marlins, a team that had traded or acquired a wealth of talent through spending millions.
His first season with the Marlins in 1997, Leyland led his team to a record of 92-70 and won his first World Series.
“To win a World Series is the ultimate memory,” Leyland said, adding it’s always great to know your team is the last one standing.
Steve Bates, former National Football League player for the Indianapolis Colts and the Orlando Thunder, says, “I think he did a good job as a manager. He did what he needed to do. He won a World Series.”
In 1998, Leyland left the Marlins with a record of 54-108. He was hired as the manger for the Colorado Rockies in 1999, but soon walked away from a two-year contract. Later that year, he became a Pittsburgh based scout for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Leyland says that the key to being a good manager is communication. He talks about how you have to be able to communicate with all people. He says this because in baseball there are people from all over the world, and you have to learn to communicate with all of them.
“You have to be able to communicate with people from all walks of life and all different cultures, and I think that’s the biggest thing to being a manager,” he said.
Jason Cannon is a long time fan of the Pirates and Leyland.
“He was the definition of what a manager should be. His players loved and respected him, and he was tough on his players when he needed to be. ”
Over the past years Leyland has been known to hire some of his former players as coaches. Counted among them are former Pirate manager and current Seattle Skipper, Lloyd McClendon and Andy Van Slyke.
“They have a good pulse for the game, and they normally know how tough this game is to play so they understand players pretty good because they’ve been though it. They know what its like to succeed, and they know what its like to fail,” he said
He says a manager must have a good relationship with each of his players. He says how you have to just use common sense with them and talk to them like they are real people.
“The only guys you have a problem with are the guys who don’t have any reasoning power, and fortunately most of the players do, theY’RE good guys.” Leyland also talks about how he just let the players play. He said, “The manager is not the show, the players are the show.”
Leyland always wore his intensity and emotions on his sleeve. He would stand up to recalcitrant stars, laugh with them, and cry with them. The worn look he acquired by the end of each season was legendary, even though he suggests his motives were otherwise.
“Don’t get to emotionally high or low, you have to stay even keel.” He says you are going to win some and lose some. You just have to be careful not to wear yourself out.
Throughout Leyland’s baseball career there have been many changes. He says the thing that has changed the most since he started has been the relief pitching. Leyland says, “It used to be that the starts went mostly all the game and the relievers were really the guys that weren’t good enough to be starts, but nowadays the relievers are specialist.” This has really changed the game of baseball for Leyland over the years of his career in baseball.
Managing the Pittsburgh Pirates was a great start for Leyland, but he says he would never go back to work for them. He says that the Pirates have a new direction, a good direction and are under good management. He doesn’t feel the need to be a hanger on just because he managed them for 11 years. Leyland says, “The Pirates don’t owe me anything, they gave me my first opportunity to manage in the big leagues and I’ll never forget that.” That was a big start for him, but he says they don’t need older people like him hanging around.
Leyland goes on to say that though he retired from managing that doesn’t mean he totally retired form baseball. He says that he will still do some work the Tiger’s and some work with the Commissioner of baseball. He says, “I feel real good about it and I have no second thoughts, its time to start a new chapter.”
Fan, Barb Herington, says, “I was happy for him, he did his job, it was his time to go and he knows he did what he needed to do.”
Leyland’s son, Patrick Leyland, is now taking a shot and following his father’s footsteps in a career in baseball. He currently plays for Detroit’s Minor League Baseball team as a catcher. Leyland says, “It’s probably unlikely that he will make it, but it was a dream to take a shot at it and why not.” Patrick Leyland is taking online classes and playing professional baseball. Jim Leyland says, “I’m proud of him!”
Doug Croft, a fan of the Pirates and Leyland, says, “He was a great manager; he was a positive force anywhere he went.”
Though being a manager for the Tiger’s may be over for Leyland, he was still known as one of the best and always will be. No matter where life takes the Leyland family now, Jim Leyland will always be known and missed as one of the best baseball managers in his time. Steve Flaven, fan of Leyland, says, “He was fantastic, he treated everyone great. He will be in the hall of Fame some day, you all just wait and see.”
“I’m just getting to old to manage,” Leyland says.