Leyland raised the bar, expectations for Tigers baseball

Jim Leyland led the Detroit Tigers to the World Series in his first season as their manager.

Jim Leyland led the Detroit Tigers to the World Series in his first season as their manager.

Mention the name “Jim Leyland” anywhere in the state of Michigan and one of two reactions is almost guaranteed: 1) A rigorous and heartfelt defense of his managerial skills; or 2) a passionate disdain for the same. Fan sentiment for the man who has led the Detroit Tigers to three straight ALCS appearances is the most polarized we can remember for any sports figure in Detroit.

For the Tigers fans who refuse to question Leyland’s tactical moves as a manager, they unquestionably feel a profound sense of gratitude and loyalty to a man who took the Tigers from being the topic of late night talk show fodder to the World Series in his first year at the helm.

For these fans, one needs to go back to how we all felt after the 2003 season when the Tigers came within a hair of setting the all-time loss record for a Major League team. Watching our boys lose 119 games had to be the definite low point for an otherwise respectable franchise. Fast forward just three years later and there was Leyland (remember those “Leyland for Governor” T-shirts?) marching his 2006 troops into the Fall Classic. It was truly a remarkable feat and every indication at the time was that the Skipper – the man calling the shots — made all the difference in the world.

On the opposite side are those fans who now have heightened expectations (ironically set by Leyland himself) and who consider anything short of a World Series championship a lost season. The bar for these fans is set incredibly high and “close” just doesn’t cut it any longer. They want the ring and they want it now.

It is quite possible that Leyland has become the casualty of his own success. By giving us a perpetual contender, he has created an atmosphere where even an unsuccessful trip to the World Series has become a major letdown. Frustrated Tigers fans have been left feeling like the bridesmaids who never quite make it to the altar. There is a feeling of envy and resentment for the teams and cities that continue to beat us out for the grand prize.

For those caught somewhere in the middle, the feeling is a mix of frustration and guilt when it comes to questioning Leyland’s managerial decisions. These fans realize that without Leyland, we wouldn’t be perennial contenders, so how can we possibly get down on him now?

Leyland is like our grandfather, a good man with the best of intentions. He even sheds tears when he feels like he’s failed us. He feels sympathy for the working man and the plight of Detroiters who always seem to take it on the proverbial chin whenever there is an economic downturn. We truly believe Leyland is “one of us” and that he would give his front teeth to bring home a World Series trophy for all of us to share. How do you question loyalty like that?

It comes into question when the expectations are so high that Las Vegas bookmakers like your chances of winning better than anyone else before the season even starts; it comes from having two Cy Young award winners and a Triple Crown winner on your team and knowing that this combination should blow every other team out of the water; it comes from having a team owner who would sacrifice his own flesh-and-blood to hoist a World Series trophy over his head, let alone the fact that he’s already offered his wallet in order to do so.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us feeling badly for a manager whose heart is unquestionably in the right place but whose head sometimes causes problems in close and crucial games.

We suspect that the explanation given for his departure at his farewell press conference was a bit less than accurate and that Leyland was “encouraged” to step down as manager by his boss. It’s reached the point where ownership and front office management are not willing to settle for second best any longer. They, too, want desperately to win.

What we got was a compromise that is symbolic of the polarized sentiments of the fans themselves: the Tigers showed respect and gratitude for the man who raised the bar for the Tigers, but also acknowledged that it may take the skills of someone else to reach the ultimate goal.

Count us in the middle camp as well. Our best to Jim Leyland and a profound “thank you” to him for bringing a troubled franchise to the point where three consecutive trips to the ALCS and losing the World Series just isn’t good enough.  That wouldn’t have happened without him.

10 replies on “Leyland raised the bar, expectations for Tigers baseball

  • Matt Parvis

    Wow, this column nails my sentiments as a Tiger fan of fifty years. Only Sparky held a managerial place in my heart until Jim Leyland came along. I love his passion, his straight forward genuine authenticity, his loyalty to the players, the city, and yes, the fans. Yet I am one of those who after all the long droughts of fan suffering wore the “Destiny” shirt in 2006 and “Believe” shirt this year. So the disappointment, in some ways was worsened by being just out of reach…again. Even before the announcement I thought two things, “It’s time for JimLeyland to step down, the Tiers need a fresh leader to get over this last hump,” and “It will be the end of an era and boy will I miss him.” And I will, every time I look at my Jim Leyland bobblehead on my shelf of Tiger memorabilia. Hwas one of a kind as a manager andmoreso as a man. Thanks Jim, for every single game, for bringing your whole heart and self to the team. I am glad you will still be involved, it’s nice to know that just like us, you are a Tiger for life.

  • Dan Holmes

    Very well stated, Steve. I have been one of his harshest critics, but that’s for his in-game strategy and stubborn adherence to a rigid methodology. I don’t think he’s a bad man, and I agree that he played a large role on returning the Tigers to respectability.

  • Larry the Giant Lizard

    To me, the Tigers’ travails of the last three seasons (2010-12) inspire memories of Scotty Bowman’s first three seasons at the helm, 1993-94 through ’95-96. The Wings were a very good team, filled with high-priced stars, but not quite there. It would take time to get all the right pieces in place. Meanwhile, expectations—-and impatience—-grew. As the Wings kept losing in the postseason, Bowman caught a lot of flak from fans and the press.

    Watching Tigers relievers give up game-winning grand slams to David Ortiz and Shane Victorino brought back the pain of rookie Chris Osgood surrendering a fluke goal as the eighth-seeded San Jose Sharks upset the Wings in the opening round of the ‘94 playoffs. Getting swept by San Francisco in the 2012 World Series brought back horrible memories of the Wings getting swept by the New Jersey Devils in the ’95 Cup Finals. And the Tigers’ loss in last week’s ALCS conjured memories of another bitterly fought six-game loss: the Wings losing to Claude Lemieux and the Colorado Avs in the ’96 conference finals. Looking back on it all now, the string of heartbreaks, accompanied by considerable angst and anticipation, made the ’97 Stanley Cup victory that much sweeter and memorable.

    Similarly, it’s very possible that one day we’ll look back on the Tigers’ current string of postseason disappointments and recognize them as just the prelude to greater things to come. Of course, Jim Leyland won’t be around to reap the laurels. But like Wings coach/GM Bryan Murray, who preceded Bowman, history will be kind to Leyland (and Dave Dombrowski) for helping to set the table.

  • David Pernick

    Perfect analysis. I do think that he was telling the truth with regards to Dombrowski wanting to keep him on board, but other than that this is spot on.

  • Sheldon Stone

    I both loved and became frustrated watching Jim manage. He brought respectability to the team, but would another skilled manager have done the same with the talent DD assembled? Regardless, he was the right guy at the right time. I enjoyed his passion and emotion and respect for the game. It will be interesting to see who follows Jim, but if it’s someone from his staff, the team will take a definite step backward; a new voice and approach is needed.

  • Rick

    The single most responsible person for bringing the Tiger’s back is Mike Illitch! Jim Leyland is a CAREER 500 manager! When will this love fest end? In 22 year’s as a M.L. manager he managed 11 teams to a 500 record or WORSE! He had an owner who spent MILLIONS to give him the BEST team in baseball and he screwed it up over and over again and for that we should be thankful? Had the Tiger’s had a Gardenhire, Francona, LaRussa, Sciosia, Girardi or any manager who could manage Mr. Illitch would have at least 2 if not 3 championships. THAT people is on one person and I for one am very thankful he is gone. Next up DUMBrowski. Let him go spend some other billionaire’s money because based on his track record that’s all he can do. He sure can’t pick a manager to manage or get a bonafide closer even with all of the money Mr. Illitch spends! For anyone who thinks Leyland is such a great guy check out how he treated poor Shannon Hogan for daring to question one of his moves. He became a stubborn bitter old man who couldn’t meet expectations and when questioned treated people like they were stupid.

  • J.D.

    Steve: While I respect Leyland, believe it was the DRASTICALLY INCREASED PAYROLL that made us a contender during his tenure!!!!

  • J.C.

    I’d like to see Alan Trammell, if he’s even interested, get another chance to manage the Tigers. This time he wouldn’t be saddled with the sorry roster he had from 2003-2005

  • Gary S

    I like Dan Holmes was one of Leyland’s harshest critics, and since 2009 (with 4 games left to play, Detroit needed 1 win the clinch the Central, and lost last 4 games and 163rd game) I’ve been saying that the Tigers would never win a World Series with Leyland as the manager. With that said, I’m going to miss Leyland. I think he did the best he could, but it just wasn’t enough. I wish him luck and hope Dombrowski does a better job finding a new manager then he did putting the bullpen together.

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