Leyland changed the way Detroiters viewed their baseball team

Jim Leyland led the Detroit Tigers to 95 wins in his first season as their manager in 2006.

Jim Leyland led the Detroit Tigers to 95 wins in his first season as their manager in 2006.

In a city full of “Winged Wheel” fans, Detroit has gladly referred to itself as “Hockeytown” for the better part of two decades now. In fact, the moniker can be officially traced back to the Red Wings filing applications to copyright “Hockeytown” as their slogan in October of 1995.

Yet, the city of Detroit can also lay claim to being a Tigers town once again.

That couldn’t have been said about the city during the 2000s without a healthy amount of sarcasm until the arrival of a certain white-haired skipper that sparked memories of legendary Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson.

Heck, when my dad had season tickets in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he, my brother and I would go to games at Tiger Stadium and later Comerica Park, and would walk around the respective stadiums and go from section to section until we found the right spot to sit in.

You could basically watch a game from wherever you wanted.

Then veteran manager Jim Leyland became the club’s skipper, replacing 1984 World Series Most Valuable Player and Tiger icon Alan Trammell. Trammell, who never had the horses to run a good race, was fired at the conclusion of the 2005 regular season.

Leyland, a two-time National League Manager of the Year with the Pirates in 1990 and 1992, let his voice be heard right away inside the Detroit clubhouse.

In 2006, Leyland’s first season, Detroit started 5-0, but then suffered a 2-5 homestand, which was capped off by a 10-2 loss at the hands of their AL Central division rival Cleveland Indians on a getaway day.

The problem for Leyland was not that the Tigers were leaving after the game for a nine-game west coast road trip. Instead, it was the lackluster effort his young ballclub displayed on this particular day: Monday, April 17th.

It led to a famous rant by the old-school skipper. A rant that celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.

The rant was reportedly so loud that it was overheard outside the clubhouse by the media awaiting Leyland’s postgame press conference. He shared some of his dismay with the club’s performance with the media as well (as reported by Bill Ferris of The Detroit Tiger Weblog):

Leyland: “We Stunk. Next question.”
Reporter: “What bothered you the most?”
Leyland: “It was lackluster, the whole ball of wax was lackluster. We had a chance to take the series, take 3 out of 4, and we came out like we brought our luggage to the park like we had to play a game before we went on the road. That’s not good enough.”
Reporter: “It seems like this was your worst loss…”
Leyland: “Yeah, we stunk period. We stunk and that’s not good enough. This stuff has been going on here before, and it’s not going to happen here. We had a chance to take a series. I’m not talking about anyone in particular. I’m talking about the team, myself, the coaches and everybody else included. It’s my responsiblity to have the team ready to play today, and they weren’t ready to play. They were ready to get on the plane and go to Oakland. If they won, it was okay, and if they lost, it was okay. That’s not good enough.”

Boy, did this tirade have an impact on the ’06 club’s performance the rest of the way in the first half.

The Tigers’ roster responded big time, going 52-23 from April 18th until the end of the first half on July 9th, giving the then-upstart club a 59-29 record.

And that was far from the best that the club experienced during its first winning campaign since my birth year, 1993.

Leyland’s squad went 40 games above .500 for the first and only time of the season as well as a season-high 10 games up on the rest of the Central division on August 7th.

The club, though, went 19-31 down the stretch, and actually fell out of first place on the last day of the regular season.

Despite the poor ending that allowed the Minnesota Twins to take the division crown, the Tigers didn’t fold in the postseason after losing their first game in the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees. In fact, Leyland’s underdog Bengals ripped off seven straight victories, en route to reaching their first World Series since 1984. The magical run was punctuated by a Magglio Ordonez walkoff home run in Detroit that won the pennant.

“THE TIGERS ARE GOING TO THE WORLD SERIES!!!” was the radio call for the ages.

It became Leyland’s first Fall Classic appearance since winning it all with the Fish in 1997.

Despite Leyland’s experience, it wasn’t enough to help catapult the Tigs past his longtime pal Tony La Russa and the St. Louis Cardinals, whom the Tigers had previously matched up with in the 1968 World Series.

The Tigs lost the ’68 rematch to the Cards in five games.

That series loss left a bad taste in my mouth. I was an eighth grader and 13-year-old at the time, and I ripped up my arcade tickets at the Shelby Township, Mich., Joe Dumars Fieldhouse when Brandon Inge struck out against Adam Wainwright for the final out of the series.

The Tigers made one more World Series appearance during the Leyland era (2006-2013). It came in 2012 against the San Francisco Giants. However, they still haven’t brought Motown its first world championship since ’84.

Leyland should not be viewed in a negative light for failing to deliver a championship, though.

Remember, three years prior to the 2006 AL Manager of the Year’s first year on the job, Detroit lost 119 games, which is still the most ever in a single season by an American League club and one loss shy of the major league record for losses set by the New York Mets in 1962 (120 losses). Remember, Detroit finished above .500 zero times from 1994-2005.

The club also only won one more division title until Leyland’s arrival. Note: The Tigers played in the AL East from 1969 until they moved into the AL Central in 1998 to give each league an even amount of teams and due to MLB expansion that brought along the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

In contrast, Leyland’s clubs finished above .500 six times and won the Central three times (2011-13).

Also, during Leyland’s inaugural season in Motown, he witnessed many big crowds at Comerica Park, as the park drew 2.5 million-plus fans for only the second time since ’84.

The first time it occurred after the Tigs captured the ’84 championship was in 2000 when Comerica opened its doors for the first time.

Leyland’s squads consistently drew 2.5 million-plus fans from 2006-09 and from 2011-13, including 3 million-plus fans in ’07 and ’08 and in 2012 and ’13.

Plain and simple, Leyland altered the mindset about baseball in Detroit.

For a guy, like me, whose first love was baseball, I will forever be grateful to Leyland for his positive impact on the Tigers.