Jim Leyland will likely soon get his Hall of Fame plaque, and here’s why

With no baseball news to report other than labor and ownership at odds over the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, it seems like a good time to look forward to the next Baseball Hall of Fame election cycle. For fans of the Detroit Tigers, that should be of interest.

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame website, this winter the Today’s Game Eras Committee will convene with the purpose of evaluating modern players and managers. That’s any baseball figure that had the meat of his career primarily from 1988 to the present.

Former manager Jim Leyland is likely to have his name on a ballot for consideration for the Hall of Fame, which resides in the quaint little village of Cooperstown in upstate New York.

Leyland managed the Tigers for eight seasons, from 2006 through the end of the 2013 season. He is the last manager to take the team to the World Series, and one of only three manager who led the franchise to more than one pennant. His credentials, with Detroit and before he arrived to helm the Tigers, make him a logical candidate for baseball’s most cherished honor.

Jim Leyland’s Path to Greatness

Like so many successful managers, Leyland was not a great baseball player. He was an undersized catcher who hit exactly four home runs in 446 minor league games, all of them in the Detroit farm system in the 1960s.

How mediocre was Leyland as a player? He was coaching at the age of 25.

But that early entry into the role as a coach helped Leyland learn as much about baseball as any man in the last half century, and he paid his dues to earn a ticket to the major leagues.

In 1971, the Tigers handed Leyland a job managing their farm team in Bristol, Virginia. It was the bottom rung of the minors, and clubs frequently wanted a younger man who may have just experienced life as a player, to welcome prospects into the professional ranks. But at 26 that first season as a manager, Leyland was even young by rookie ball standards. Still, he threw himself into the job.

For most of the 1970s, Leyland navigated his way up the Detroit minor league ladder. Just about every prospect in the organization shared a dugout or a bus with him at some point. He managed Ron LeFlore and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. He mentored promising young players Steve Kemp and Jason Thompson. Leyland managed Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whitaker, still teenagers. He helped guide several future stars like Kirk Gibson to Detroit. But he still remained essentially unknown outside of the backwater towns where he and his teams played ball.

In three of four seasons in the late 1970s, Leyland took his teams to league championships. But, all he could do was hit a ceiling at Triple-A, because by 1979, the Tigers had Sparky Anderson as their manager, and the course was set for the future: there was nowhere for Leyland to go.

Based partially on a recommendation from Anderson, the White Sox added Leyland to their coaching staff for the 1982 season. Their manager was an equally young Tony La Russa, and Leyland quickly worked his way into a valuable role on the ChiSox staff. But his sights were set on getting the top job himself.

In 1986, when La Russa went west to take the managerial job in Oakland, his pal Leyland was hired by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the same role. For the 41-year old Leyland, it was a dream realized. Not only was he a big league manager, but it was with his hometown team. Leyland was born in Toledo, but his family moved across the Maumee River to Perrysburg when he was young, and he spent a lot of time in neighboring Pennsylvania. To this day he makes his home in the suburbs of Pittsburgh.

The Pirates had lost 104 games the year before Leyland arrived as a rookie skipper. But the roster was gaining talent. One of the names on his first roster was rookie outfielder Barry Bonds, son of a former All-Star and a huge talent himself. The shaky relationship between Leyland and Bonds would help define the manager’s tenure in the Steel City.

In 1990, Leyland had enough talent to compete and he led the Pirates to their first playoff appearance since 1979, winning the National League East division. A staple of Leyland’s style would become his acceptance of young players, and in 1990 his team had five regular position players who were 27 years or younger, and his top pitcher was 25-year old ace Doug Drabek. Even Pittsburgh’s loss in the playoffs couldn’t sour the successful season, and Leyland was named NL Manager of the Year.

Leyland led the Pirates to a second and then a third consecutive division title in 1991 and 1992. His team was built around the speed and power of players like Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke, as well as his deft handling of the bullpen. But, the Bucs were defeated each time in the playoffs, suffering a crushing defeat in Game Seven of the ’92 NL Playoffs when the Braves scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth.

At times, Leyland felt like he was leading his team against two enemies in Pittsburgh: the opponent and his best player. With a massive ego and ultra-sensitivity, Barry Bonds was difficult to manage; defying the front office, growling at the media, and alienating his teammates. When Bonds exited Pittsburgh for free agent dollars though, Leyland’s team suffered, and he quit after the 1996 season.

It was one of the many crucial decisions Leyland made in his winding career in baseball: leaving the Pirates even though he had a contract that ran another four years and would pay him as much as $1 million, one of the top figures for a manager in the game. But Leyland accurately realized that ownership in Pittsburgh was not resolved to spend money on player development or free agents, and that was why he left his first managerial stop.

A Title in Florida

But Jim Leyland was not unemployed long: a job with the Marlins was waiting in the wings. The four-year old franchise was steadily trying to walk its way out of the toddler phase in 1997, and ownership was confident that the strong leadership of Leyland would bring them to the winning side. That optimism proved correct.

Armed with a roster of mostly veteran renegades, Leyland shuttled the ’97 Marlins to 92 wins and a wild card spot in the playoffs. Few experts gave the Fish a chance, but Leyland led the team to a three-game sweep of Bonds and the Giants in the NL Division Series, two of the games one-run nail biters. The oddsmakers had the Marlins as decided underdogs against the Atlanta Braves in the Nl Championship Series. After all, the Braves were coming off two straight appearances in the World Series. But, the Marlins got excellent pitching from Kevin Brown and Liván Hernández (both of whom won two games) and shocked the Braves to win the pennant.

The magic kept flowing in the 1997 World Series, when Leyland saw his team take the heavily-favored Indians to a seventh game, where the Marlins rallied to tie the contest in the ninth, and won it in the 11th. The skinny, light-hitting catcher who couldn’t get his way to the major leagues as a player, and who spent 12 years as a minor league manager, had won a championship had the highest level. It was the apex of Leyland’s professional career.

The next chapter of Leyland’s career was muddy: he bolted the Marlins after the 1998 season when ownership let all their good players leave via free agency. He puzzled many by accepting a job to manage the Rockies, but puzzled even more by quitting after only one season with the franchise.

At the dawn of the 21st century, it appeared that Leyland was content to be a former major league manager, twice named Manager of the Year, with a World Series title to his credit. But the man they called “Smoky” was still in his fifties, so his name would pop up any time a managerial job opened. Still, he stayed on the sidelines from 2000 to 2005.

Restoring the Roar to Tigers Baseball

That’s when an old friend called Leyland asking him to help deliver on a promise. Dave Dombrowski had been the general manager in Florida, hiring Leyland in 1997 in what ended up being the signature achievement of the skipper’s dugout days. But now, Dombrowski was in Detroit, the organization that gave Leyland his first job as a player in the 1960s. He wanted Leyland to manage the team and help deliver a title, something Dombrowski had promised team owner Mike Ilitch that he would work tirelessly toward.

When Leyland arrived in Detroit, in some ways in his own mind, he was a successor to Sparky Anderson, one of his heroes. But the team he found in Motown was young and listless. The Tigers had suffered twelve consecutive losing seasons, including an embarrassing 119-loss campaign in 2003. The losing culture in Detroit was difficult to scrub away, even for the most optimistic of baseball men.

The Detroit Tigers played like a completely different team in 2006 under Leyland than in any recent season. With his reliance on and faith in young players (especially on his pitching staff), Leyland guided the Tigers to baseball’s best record at the All-Star break. They stumbled down the stretch of the regular season, but still won 95 games, and amazing 24-game improvement. Leyland had made a difference in a huge way.

The Tigers shocked the Yankees in the playoffs and swept the A’s in the ALCS to win the pennant in 2006, their first since way back in 1984 when Sparky had been sitting in the manager’s chair. Though the team was defeated in the World Series, Leyland had achieved the unthinkable: baseball was relevant in the Motor City again.

In eight seasons in Detroit, the crusty Leyland, who was gruff on the edges, but a softy when it came to those in his clubhouse, led the team to seven winning seasons and two pennants. His 2013 team was probably the finest, but they fell short when the Red Sox beat them in a playoff series they should probably have won. Leyland retired shortly after the playoff loss: he’d had enough plane trips, meals in the clubhouse, and drills on the spring training fields. At 68 he was one of baseball’s oldest managers, and he didn’t have anything else to prove. Even if he did fall short of winning a title for Mr. Ilitch.

Comparing Leyland to Other Hall of Fame Candidates

In Detroit, Leyland won at a .540 clip, a better figure than that of Sparky. He joined Hughie Jennings and Mickey Cochrane as the only Tiger managers to win more than one pennant. Both of those men are in the Hall of Fame.

Leyland’s 1,769 career wins ranked 14th when he retired. They rank 18th now, and 12 of the managers ahead of him are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Three others: Bruce Bochy, Terry Francona, and Dusty Baker, will be some day.

Only 28 managers have won as many as three pennants (in the non-Negro League major leagues since 1900), and 22 are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Only Leyland, Charlie Grimm, Ralph Houk, Bochy, Francona, and Dave Roberts are not.

Leyland, Houk, Bochy, and Francona are the only managers in baseball history since 1900, who have won at least three pennants and also at least 1,500 games in their careers. As I’ve said, Bochy and Francona, who won three and two World Series titles respectively, will one day be elected. That leaves Leyland in a category with former Yankee manager Houk, who ironically also managed the Tigers for a stretch.

You can hardly tell the story of baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s without mentioning Jim Leyland, who led three teams to the playoffs, two teams to the Fall Classic, and was named Manager of the Year three times. His hard-nosed, no-nonsense style endeared him to his players and even the media. Leyland is, with La Russa, Davey Johnson, and Lou Piniella, among the pre-eminent managers who came into the major leagues in the 1980s.

The question isn’t “Will Jim Leyland be elected to the Hall of Fame?” The question is: “Will the former Tiger skipper do the moonwalk in Cooperstown?”

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