Jim Leyland is calling it a career.
He never played for or managed the Indians, but his career is intertwined with the Tribe.
Leyland grew up in Perrysburg in Northwest Ohio, a little closer to Detroit than to Cleveland, but his youth coincided with the glory years of the Indians in the early 1950s, and Leyland grew up an Indians fan.
His allegiance changed in 1963 when he was drafted by the Tigers. Leyland never broke into the majors as a player, but spent seven years in the Tigers farm system, and then spent another 12 connected with the team before being named to Tony LaRussa’s coaching staff with the White Sox in 1983.
While with the White Sox, Leyland saw a lot of the Indians, who at the time were going nowhere fast. In 1986, Leyland got his first managing job, taking over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates were just seven years removed from their last World Championship, as Willie Stargell led the family over the Orioles, the culmination of what was probably the greatest decade in team history.
But by the mid-1980s, a lot of the talent from that era was gone, and the Pirates clubhouse had become notorious as the center of a nationwide drug ring, as players – and even the Pirate Parrot – were implicated in cocaine use and trafficking. However, the Pirates were on the verge of developing a team for the ages, which came together to win three straight National League East titles, but were unable to break through to the World Series.
Sid Bream sliding under Mike LaValliere’s tag signaled the end of an era in Pittsburgh. Talented players like Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek fled for greener pastures, and the Pirates entered a 20-year rebuilding phase. Leyland stuck around for some of it, and ended up as the first opposing manager at Jacobs Field, as the Indians hosted the Pirates in an exhibition game two days before Opening Day in 1994. The Pirates prevailed 6-4 in 10 innings. Leyland was also the first person to flout the no-smoking rule at the stadium, lighting cigarettes in the dugout.
In 1996, Leyland had enough at Pittsburgh, and went looking for another job. He found it with the four-year-old Florida Marlins where, oddly enough, he was reunited with Bonilla. In his first season with the Marlins, he led them to a wild card finish, and the Marlins advanced to the World Series, where they would face the Indians, making their second trip to the Fall Classic in three years.
The Marlins prevailed in seven games, Leyland’s only World Championship, and owner Wayne Huizenga, in what was to become a trend in Miami, started dumping players and salary. The Marlins went 54-108 the following year, and Leyland resigned in protest.
Leyland then joined the Rockies, the other expansion team started in 1993. After a 72-90 season with them, he left the last two years of his contract. The Indians were looking for a manager at the time, having just fired Mike Hargrove after the team blew a 2-0 Division Series lead to the Red Sox. Leyland was not interested in that job – or any other managerial job at the time. The Rockies hired Buddy Bell, a former Indians player who was interviewed by the Tribe, and the Indians promoted coach Charlie Manuel to manager.
The Indians fired Manuel in 2002, and two years later, the Philadelphia Phillies fired Larry Bowa. Leyland had been working as a Pittsburgh-area scout for La Russa, the Cardinals manager at the time, and enjoying season tickets at PNC Park. He lobbied hard for the Phillies job, but Manuel got it. Still, Leyland had the itch.
In 2006, he replaced Alan Trammell as Tigers skipper. Trammell was one of the most popular players in team history, but his tenure as manager left a lot be desired, going 184-300 in three years, including a 119-loss season, one shy of the modern major league record, in his first year as manager.
Leyland’s signing as manager also coincided with some of the decisions made by Tigers president/GM Dave Dombrowski starting to bear fruit. Dombrowski, hired by the Tigers in 2002, was formerly the general manager of the Marlins when Leyland was there. In 2006, the Tigers couldn’t hold on to the American League Central, but won the wild card and advanced to the World Series before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals.
So began the best streak of Tigers play in the past 20 years. The Motor City Kitties had just one losing season in Leyland’s reign, going 74-88 in 2008. The Indians were able to overtake the Tigers in 2007 to win the American League Central, and have hung around the top of the division for the past three years, but they best they could get was a wild card this year.
Dombrowski was able to spend more and more money each year, as the Tigers have crept into the top five teams in terms of payroll, but Leyland was the man on the field keeping it all together.
Baseball will miss him. Indians fans will not.