The Meaningful Words of Jim Leyland

I had a small but ironic personal twist evidence itself early Saturday in the aftermath of the Tigers exciting clinching of this year’s Central Division title.

The team’s ascension to one of baseball’s semi-crowns of autumn was of course a foregone conclusion in the wake of their 13 out of 14 take-no-prisoners run … and the arrival of Justin Verlander as the most dominant individual force on the American League side of baseball’s divide.

The team’s surprising (was anybody expecting this?) burst as it ran over its competitive rivals — opponents (Twins, White Sox, Indians) who had routinely bedeviled the Bengals in seasons past — left Detroiters marveling at a fairly unfamiliar lineup that seemed to suddenly announce itself as the heirs to the muscular bunch who made mincemeat of all of baseball way back in 1984.

Those Tigers seemed, in that amazing season, to win almost at will. Almost like it was an afterthought. And that ain’t the birthright of Detroit baseball, not predominantly over the organization’s 110-year American League experience. In modern times, only the ‘84 team exhibited an ability to bully its opposition like these new guys recently have.

And new guys many of them are. Martinez, Pfister, Young, Betemit … emerging alongside blossoming talent like Avila, Peralta, Valverde, Benoit, Rayburn, Boesch, Jackson … I mean, who are these guys? We saw Trammell, Gibson, Morris, Parrish, Whitaker coming … they personified a power promised to us for years by their manager. They seemed inevitable, even obvious, once they arrived. But these latest guys? Who had pegged this bunch at 25 games over .500?

And their manager. Let’s be honest, did he not seem like a passenger on this bus? A too familiar presence whose involvement would not surprise if his guys had ended up on top or at the bottom. His act — as all we superficial observers see via the sports-as-sitcom projections of daily television exposure — consists of postgame cigarettes and a bite of food here and there wrapped around dour or understated dry observations produced without eye contact and without — even — a seeming interest in communicating with us at all. We always feel like we’re intruding in that tiny office of his, bothering him after most games, annoying him with our questions . The guy obviously and usually wants to be left alone. He’s tired, the interviews are tiresome.

Now… I had a terrific experience earlier that clinching Friday. I appeared on something called a “podcast” with longtime comedic inspiration and retired local radio legend Dick Purtan. His influence, going back to the late 1960s, inspired me to pursue a variety of showbiz attempts in my checkered career. And now here he was in this new broadcast role, hosting his ninth such give-and-take Friday at his new dot-com website, once again dragging me along in his wake.

The format has something to do with people speaking to you from your computer, usurping the power and presence of radio as we once knew it. It’s a concept so new that no one is apparently quite sure yet how it will evolve, make itself known, in the great unknown future of broadcasting … or how money can or someday will be harvested from computer communications. Purtan is a perfect pioneer to plow strange ground. And my own record is clear — if there’s not money to be made, I’m there.

It seemed fitting to me to be cast alongside an old pro such as Purtan in my first exploration into podcasting, whatever it means or however it’s done. All I know is I got to sit there and shoot the breeze with this conversational legend, and our wide-ranging discussion wandered out into the computer world wrapped around topics that went from college football to local television to Sparky Anderson and, logically, the surprising success of our current Tigers. For Detroit still is, at day’s end, a baseball town.

Citing an old personal association with Anderson, I mentioned how much I missed him on the local sports scene, and especially missed his charismatic media performances now that the Tigers were back atop the list of our hot topics. Dick and I slid past any personal references to Jim Leyland, kind of dismissing the present skipper with the expressed attitude that … Leyland is, well … he’s Leyland. Nuff said, I felt, in my first blabbing in the brave new podcast world.

But an interesting thing happened later Friday, deep into the evening, into the morning of Saturday in fact, as the Tigers joyously performed the usual champagne ritual outside their expectedly dour manager’s office. Leyland’s eyes that early morning were not evasive, or even hard. They were red, and wet. He was absently smoking an over-sized cigar.

Asked for personal reactions and sense of pride in his team’s surprising ascendancy, and his opinion as to how it has affected our beleaguered town, Leyland said:

“I’m kind of emotional right now, but I am (proud of his team). We met the challenges head on. I’m thrilled. I’m as happy for Don Kelly (Friday’s hitting hero) as I am for anybody. He’s never gonna win a Gold Glove, or a batting title, but this will be a special memory for him forever. And it couldn’t happen to a better guy.

“And by the way, thank you to all the fans back in Detroit. I doubt you’re up right now, but thank you for the support. I really appreciate it. I really mean that, I can’t tell you how proud I am of you guys (Tigers fans) … and of the loyalty that you’ve shown to us. And I hope you’re proud of us tonight.

“It’s tough times for the people in Detroit, we know that. Maybe they think we don’t think about that, but believe me, we do. I come from a big family, my dad was a factory worker. I know all about that stuff, about worrying about getting laid off, I have an appreciation for that. It means so much to me. And in tough times like these, a sports team can uplift your spirits, and I hope that we lifted up the spirits of our fans in Detroit … because they deserve it.”

That ended the interview. Not because Leyland didn’t want to continue … but because he couldn’t. He was in tears; he turned away.

And for all the clever and charismatic things Sparky Anderson said to us over the many years … none was as eloquent. None meant as much.

And none educated me to such a degree.