Leyland reflects on Tigers' resurrection in 2006

April 17th, 2016

Baseball came back to Detroit, 10 years ago Sunday.
That's an odd thing to say, I suppose, on the anniversary of a 10-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians before 19,126 fans at Comerica Park. But to those who followed the Tigers' journey that year, from local and national afterthought to American League champions, that was the day everything changed.
The game itself was unspectacular -- which, ironically, is why it became so important. After the final out, Jim Leyland, then only 13 games into his tenure as the Detroit manager, entered the clubhouse. And he yelled. I was among the local reporters lined up behind a closed door, waiting for the postgame media availability to begin. The commotion was loud enough that we heard it through the brick walls.
Why was Leyland so angry? Nate Robertson, the Tigers' starter, lasted only 2 1/3 innings. The Tigers trailed 7-1 by the time they came to bat in the bottom of the third. They had only one at-bat with a runner in scoring position all afternoon. This, it seemed, was one of those unwinnable games that even the best teams encounter over the course of 162 games.
But Leyland saw something he could not ignore. As the game unraveled, the Tigers became increasingly passive. The results weren't the problem. The lack of competitiveness was. The Tigers, who'd known their manager for only a couple months, didn't realize they were violating one of his most sacred tenets: They were giving away precious Major-League at-bats.
"I told them that wasn't good enough," Leyland recalled in a recent telephone interview. "I don't want to indicate that we didn't try , but you could smell it. As a manager, you can smell things.
"After we got behind, I could tell they were thinking, 'We're not going to win this game. Let's go to the clubhouse. Let's get on the plane.' That just wasn't acceptable to me, and I wanted to point that out.
"I remember telling them, 'I can promise you guys, I'm never going to stop managing. I'm going to manage nine innings, and I want you to play nine innings. That's what I want us to do at all costs.'"
His postgame press conference was terse -- a made-for-TV version of what he'd told the players. He cut off questions after about 90 seconds, his public words driving toward a clear thesis: This might've been acceptable in the past, but it's not going to happen anymore.
At that point, Detroit fans hadn't watched a winning baseball team since 1993. The Tigers hadn't reached the postseason in nearly two decades. But all at once, Leyland offered hope -- as long as a capable roster heeded his clear demands.
And there was something about how Leyland said it that resonated. Maybe it was that Michiganders identified with Leyland, the son of a glass factory worker from nearby Perrysburg, Ohio. Maybe it was that Leyland -- a former catcher and manager in the Tigers' Minor-League system -- spoke with palpable passion for, and attachment to, the Olde English D.
"I can remember people talking about it," Leyland said. "Some people commented on it to me, that they enjoyed it: 'Oh, Leyland flipped out on the team.' Some people probably liked it, because it gave them the idea that we were really into this thing.
"I don't mean that anybody wasn't running hard to first or anybody was dogging it. But you can get a feel, or a smell. We never gave up, but we gave in. We just fell behind and thought, 'OK, we're not winning today,' and played the rest of the game. And that just wasn't acceptable."
The Tigers lost in Oakland the next night, and their record dropped to 7-7. That was the last they saw of the .500 mark. They closed the road trip by winning six of eight, then began the following homestand with six consecutive victories.
By May 18, they were in first place -- and stayed there for nearly the balance of the season.
"I could see guys took it to heart -- about being a team, coming together, and having that swagger the Yankees had," Leyland said. "That early West Coast trip was good for all of us, because we really closed ranks and said, 'We're pretty good. There are no shortcuts to championships, and we're not going to take any shortcuts.'
"I always downplayed it, because you don't want to sound like you're taking credit. And it didn't help us the next night, obviously. But then we got on a roll and took off. I could really feel it. I'd talk with the coaches, and we'd all say, 'Hey, we've really got something going here. They got the message. They're hungry.'"
Between Leyland's challenge to the team and the All-Star break, the Tigers went 52-23 -- a .693 winning percentage. They reached the postseason as a wild-card team following a late-September stumble, but won the AL pennant with seven consecutive victories over the Oakland A's and New York Yankees. Then they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, undone by a weeklong layoff and the pitching staff's bizarre throwing errors.
Still, the legacy remains: From the beginning of Leyland's tenure to today, the Tigers have the sixth-best record in the Majors and are one of four AL franchises to win multiple pennants. They also rank 10th in Major League Baseball over that span with an average home crowd of 34,891, according to STATS LLC -- an impressive mark, given Detroit's market size and economic challenges.
"I do think -- regardless of what anyone says -- that team turned baseball around in Detroit, and it's been going great ever since," Leyland said. "And I'm not talking about myself. I'm talking about that team. They had losing records for all those years in a row. People weren't coming to the park. We gradually got the people back together and put Detroit baseball back on the map.
"You could see it happen as that season went on. The seats started filling up. The atmosphere changed. You could sense the fans' anxiety and hope. It was a gradual thing. It's funny what you notice as a manager -- and you don't really share anything like this -- but sometimes I'd be sitting there before a game, I'd look up into the stands, and I'd see nothing but Tigers' stuff everywhere.
"No matter what was going on for them at work, or if they'd just lost a job, they were happy for those three hours, watching us play."
And still, 10 years later, Leyland often wears the AL championship ring inscribed with the message his players took to heart that April afternoon: Nine Full Innings.