Jim Leyland Was One of the Last of a Dying Breed
Ron Gardenhire with the Twins and Mike Scioscia with the Angels are definitely in there. Even though he’s heavy on tendencies and study, Buck Showalter with the Orioles fits with an older school type manager. You can stick Bruce Bochy of the Giants in as well. And that’s it. With the Tigers, you can figure that their GM Dave Dombrowski will bring in an established manager to handle his veteran-heavy team. Presumably he’ll promote Gene Lamont as the new manager. I think Larry Bowa would be a good choice. But the Tigers are in the minority with that kind of manager having a shot at the job. Most clubs are going to do what the Astros did with Bo Porter and hire someone working cheap for the opportunity and willing to follow orders. Even the World Series teams the Red Sox and Cardinals have managers in John Farrell and Mike Matheny who are not in a position to be making significant salary demands or to influence the roster to a massive degree. Neither even managed a day in the minors. If someone wants to be a manager today, he’d better know both the stats and the score before accumulating experience in the minor leagues.
Leyland was one of the last of his breed. Because he’s considered a dinosaur, it has led to rampant criticism from the stat-centric media and fans who think that his methods are antiquated and no longer work. Of course it’s nonsense. For Leyland to have had the success he did with the Tigers during his tenure – four playoff appearances and two pennants in eight years – it clearly shows that his way can still work in the right situation. It’s not like it was when Leyland first started, though.
When Leyland began his managerial career, the dugout boss had significant say-so in the construction of the roster and certainly didn’t have to answer to a GM who was half his age and never picked up a baseball or bat, let alone played professionally.
It’s trendy to scoff at the in-the-trenches experience that men like Leyland, Scioscia, Gardenhire, Showalter and Bochy have. Commonly, those who disregard the concept of experience only do so because they don’t have any of it themselves. As players who were either mediocre or just plain bad, they had to figure out certain intricacies of the game not to win but to, as was said in Bull Durham, “keep coming to the ballpark and getting paid to do it.”
Leyland spent 22 years managing in the Major Leagues. It’s easily forgotten how he got there. Leyland was in the minors as a player for seven years in the Tigers organization as a catcher. He wasn’t very good. In fact, he was quite bad. You have to be bad to somehow figure a way to have a slugging percentage lower than your on-base percentage. You also have to be a survivor to keep a professional job as a player for 446 games with those dreadful numbers. He became a minor league manager at 27 and worked in the Tigers organization for nine years before Tony LaRussa hired him as a coach with the White Sox.
In LaRussa, Leyland found a kindred spirit; a man who had also been a bad player and kept a job in baseball with his smarts and savvy, working his way up to being a manager in the Majors. At the time Leyland and LaRussa were younger men, both in their late-30s, early-40s, and were considered a new kind of manager from the Billy Martins of the world. Back then, there wasn’t a twenty-something general manager, a load of kids working in the front office as assistants who knew stats giving “suggestions” to the manager, the media taking to a social media outlet and critiquing decisions in real time.
The managers did what they wanted, answered the questions from the beat reporters after the game and got on with their lives having a drink in the bar, smoking a cigarette, talking the game into the wee hours and doing whatever else came to mind. Leyland never had to adapt to a young GM telling him what’s what because the ones he worked for with the Pirates, Marlins, Rockies and Tigers were of a similar mind to him and his brethren. The idea was that the GM gets the players, the manager manages the players. There were no complicated stats for Leyland to have to sift through to tell him not to pitch Doug Drabek on three days rest in St. Louis when the temperature was above 98 degrees. He managed the team. He’d handle it.
With the Tigers and Dombrowski, there was a simplicity that is rare in today’s data-heavy management scenario. Leyland would have a hard time getting another managing job with a different team if he had been fired by the Tigers and decided he wanted to manage for a few more years because the number of teams that will care for, feed and take the responsibility of a dinosaur is nonexistent. The managers listed above are still in their jobs because they’re established. Once they’re gone, it’s likely that they will be replaced by a manager who’s there to be a subordinate to the front office and not operate as the monarch in an impenetrable fiefdom with no interference from anywhere.
The game Leyland was reared in is gone. Leyland loved being at the park, hitting fungoes during infield practice, bantering with the grizzled beat reporters and just being around the other baseball men. There are a precious few actual “baseball men” in the game today. Now it’s a lot of highly educated people who have degrees from MIT, Harvard and other lofty academies of higher learning and think they’re in a better position to evaluate players because of numbers crunching than Leyland with his fifty-plus years of experience in being around players and participating in live games.
Meeting with a 25-year-old kid about why Miguel Cabrera should be hitting second with reams of paper to “prove” the theory is not Leyland’s idea of baseball. Lucky for him the Tigers never got to that point. To diminish the work Leyland did with the Tigers due to strategic disagreements misses an important issue that would be made clearer if the Tigers were to hire a young man who was going to follow orders from the front office on how to deploy his players: that clubhouse with a group of highly paid veterans are not going to listen to some guy who, in their eyes, has no credibility. Put A.J. Hinch in as Tigers manager and see what happens. Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder would ignore him and Torii Hunter would openly mock him. Even the worst of the worst – players who had problems with managers everywhere they went like Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla – loved Leyland because he treated them like men.
The number of managers like Leyland are dwindling. There might eventually be a shift into the other direction again with less of a focus on numbers and a greater reliance on experience. Until then, the managers of Leyland’s ilk are dying out and baseball is missing something because of it.