Leyland Managing Quite Well, ThankYou
As a player, he was the clasic overachiever, a catcher with minimal talent who couldn’t hit and played seven professional seasons without rising above Class AA.
As a manager, he endured 11 minor league seasons of 800-mile bus rides, lousy hotels, fast food, slow games, big egos, small crowds and smaller paychecks just for the opportunity to manage the majors’ worst team.
He skippered a no-name Pittsburgh Pirates’ team just two years removed from a 98-loss season to a second-place finish in 1988, only to watch them slide back into the second division last year.
Apparently, this Jim Leyland just doesn’t know when to quit.
But overachievers, especially those born with an inextinguishable competitive fire, have remarkable resiliency, an ability to bounce back from the worst of times and the worst of teams.
These days, Jim Leyland is managing quite well, thank you. The Pirates are in first place in the National League East -- only about four places higher than predicted.
How does he do it with a pitching staff of less-than-household names such as Bob Patterson, Scott Ruskin and Stan Belinda? With a third baseman, Wally Backman, nobody wanted last winter as a free agent? With a first baseman, Sid Bream, who is rehabilitating from three career-threatening knee operations? With a shortstop, Jay Bell, who was traded straight-up for the non-descript Felix Fermin?
How does Leyland manage so well with what many perceive as so little?
“The manager is going to win you some games and lose you some games based on his knowledge of the game, but a manager can’t invent talent. That’s the only thing that Jim Leyland has lacked so far, and now he’s got it” -- Andy Van Slyke.
“He’s relentless ... always pushing toward perfection. In spring training, he’ll sit there all night, writing out different lineup cards. There are no off days for him” -- Pirates coach Rich Donnelly.
When he finally made it to the big leagues as the Chicago White Sox’s third-base coach in 1982, 18 years after signing his first professional contract, Jim Leyland worried briefly he was in over his head.
Some of the players didn’t know him, others wondered about his lack of major-league experience. Here was a guy best known for hitting humpback liners over second base in Class A ball telling them what to do?
But he had a supportive, talented manager in Tony LaRussa, and Leyland quickly proved he was his own guy. Natural playing ability doesn’t always translate into having a sharp mind for baseball’s nuances -- knowing when to bunt, knowing when to take a pitcher out, knowing when a guy has one more game left in him.
Leyland knew those things, and a lot more.
“There are good people in baseball who never get a chance up here. I always felt that if you did your job and worked hard, people would find out about you and give you a chance” -- Jim Leyland.
He was the perfect hire for the imperfect team when the Pirates pulled him off the coaching lines in 1986 to succeed Chuck Tanner as manager. Here was a no-name manager with no-name players in a city that wasn’t really sure if it wanted baseball any longer.
Threatened by declining attendance, a clubhouse cocaine scandal and a ho-hum populous, the Pirates wondered how much longer they had in Pittsburgh. Saddled with a terrible team, Leyland himself wondered if he had much of a future in Pittsburgh.
“I think I had a phobia about being a no-name ... that if it didn’t work out and I lost my job early I might never get another chance,” Leyland said. “I wasn’t worried about getting fired, but about not getting another chance. So I took it personal when we lost.”
That was about every day. And, when he lost, he took it out on opposing clubhouses, throwing food about as often as his players threw away games. His tirades often were heard by reporters standing outside locked clubhouse doors.
“I thought I had to prove to everybody I could manage,” he said. “I knew we weren’t going to win and we were going to have a bad record.”
“As I matured as a manager, I realized the winning record today belongs to the players just as much as (the losing record) did in ’86. If they’re good enough to win, I won’t stand in the way and if they do win, I won’t have much to do with it” -- Jim Leyland.
As a shrewd, thrifty general manager named Syd Thrift gradually assembled a better ballclub, Leyland became a better manager. He worked just as hard -- he still pulled as many all-nighters as a college student during finals -- only now he was seeing the rewards of his labors.
When the Pirates abandoned last place for the first time in four seasons in 1987, they held a post-game champagne bash to celebrate, probably a first for a fourth-place team.
A year later, they challenged for the NL East title for two-thirds of the season, only to fade and finish 15 games behind the New York Mets. Leyland’s reconstruction job won him the Co-Manager of the Year award, with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Tom Lasorda, from The Sporting News.
He was finally winning respect, but he still hadn’t won what he really wanted: a title. And a brief run at a championship made him realize what it takes to win in the long haul.
“I was flattered and honored when I was named by my peers with Tommy Lasorda. The only difference was he was a world champion and I wasn’t. That’s what puts Whitey Herzog and Tony LaRussa and Davey Johnson in a different category -- the only group that every manager wants to be in” -- Jim Leyland.
He has been called a La Russa clone, a manager who relies on computer printouts and high-tech information to chart his every move.
Leyland, who looks more than his 45 years after a ninth-inning loss, only wishes managing were that easy.
“I think too much of has been made of that, because there is no comparison between Tony LaRussa and Jim Leyland ... and not because he’s an attorney and I was damn lucky to get out of high school,” Leyland said.
“If I win a world championship and a couple of pennants and people want to compare me to someone who’s done it, fine. But until then you can’t do it.”
Leyland also knows all the computer software in the Silicon Valley won’t help a hitter with an overdue mortgage payment or a sick baby when he faces Dwight Gooden’s 99-mph heat in the ninth inning.
“People say it’s high tech because computers are involved, but what it comes down to is it’s the same thing we used to with pencil and paper, except that took longer,” he said. “I can tell you that every manager does it because when I see something a little different in a manager’s lineup, sure as hell I’ll look at my numbers and see that guy wears my guy out.
“That’s why I respect Tony LaRussa so much because he uses that information the right way. If you’re not careful you can let that be a safety device for you. And sometimes, as a manager, you have to go with your gut. You have to stick your chest out and say, ‘I did it that way because I thought it was the right way.’ ”
“Some nights all those statistics and numbers won’t help you at all because every hitter you’ve got is hitting .090 against a pitcher” -- Jim Leyland.
He once got critical letters -- some signed by man named A. Bartlett Giamatti -- about smoking too much in the dugout. Sometimes he’d enjoy a drink or three or four after a game. Or stay up all night because of the 15 cups a coffee he’d had.
He never owned a house until he was 41, never cared much about anything except baseball, until he came to Pittsburgh and married a former Pirates’ promotions assistant named Katie O’Connor.
This spring, he gave up smoking, except for an occasional cigar. He drinks tea, but never coffee. His lifestyle changes, and his marriage, have helped him enjoy the Pirates’ resurgence all the more.
“I never had a wild lifestyle. Hell, some people thought I was a mama’s boy because I’d never bought a home ... but I was in baseball 10 months a year. Now, I’ve got a home, I’ve got a great wife, I’ve got squirrels eating out of my bird feeder. I like all that stuff,” he said.
“I just decided I wanted to be a more responsible person away frm the ballpark. I’d dedicated my whole life to being a responsible person at the ballpark but nothing else.”
It hasn’t been easy. He lost his father 18 months ago, a baby last winter. When the Pirates became winners, Thrift -- not Leyland -- got most of the attention and credit. Later, a messy front-office shakeup forced Thrift out and brought the little-known Larry Doughty in. And there was last year’s unsettling crash dive into fifth place.
“I went through some tough times,” Leyland said. “I’ve come out of it better than I ever have been. I feel better about myself than I ever have before. I like things I never liked before, like people better than I did before.
“I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.”