Baseball lifer Leyland deserving of Hall immortality

December 4th, 2023

Jim Leyland, not just a great manager but one of the great baseball men who has ever lived, finally made it to the Hall of Fame on Sunday, selected by the Contemporary Era Committee, which votes on managers and executives and umpires. So this was the crowning moment of a baseball life that began for the kid from Perrysburg, Ohio, with him as a Minor League catcher before he got his first managing job with Bristol of the Appalachian League more than a half-century ago.

“I knew how hard this game was, because I found out early for myself,” he told me a long time ago, sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Shea Stadium in 1986, when his Pirates were in the process of playing 18 games against the Mets and losing 17. “And I’ve prided myself ever since on letting my players know that nobody knows better than me just how hard it really is.”

There has never been a more respected baseball man than Leyland, from the time he really learned the trade of being a big league manager working for Tony La Russa as a coach for the White Sox. He was formed by that, and then by so much winning eventually, with the Pirates and then the Marlins, who won it all for him, and the Rockies and finally the two Tigers teams he would take to the World Series later.

But the true measure of Jim Leyland wasn’t just the way he won, it was the way he lost, too.

I was there in 1992, at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, for Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, when we were all sure that this was the year when Leyland would make it to the World Series. Barry Bonds was young for the Pirates and Leyland’s ace, Doug Drabek was on the mound, and the Pirates were ahead that night, 2-0, in the bottom of the ninth. 

Terry Pendleton led off with a double. Then Jose Lind, Leyland’s Gold Glove-winning second baseman, booted a routine grounder by David Justice. A walk to Sid Bream, one of Leyland's former players with the Pirates, loaded the bases and ended Drabek's night. 

Two outs later, with Bucs still clinging to a 2-1 lead and Bream at second representing the winning run, Francisco Cabrera, a pinch-hitter, singled to left off Stan Belinda. Bonds charged the ball and Bream, running like he was carrying furniture, came toward home. He beat Bonds’ throw. The Braves were going to the World Series. Leyland would have to wait five more years, and move to the Marlins, before he would make it there himself.

The Pirates’ clubhouse door stayed closed that night past the time when baseball’s rules said it needed to be open. But not one person in our media crowd complained, despite the lateness of the hour and with so many of us in danger of blowing past our deadlines.

The reason nobody complained was simple enough: Jim Leyland was on the other side of the door, and everybody standing there that night respected Leyland the way his players always did.

The door opened at last and Leyland, in that cigarette-ravaged voice, his eyes red, his voice soft, said, “Guys, I’m gonna need just a few more minutes.”

When we got in there, of course, Leyland carried himself like a champion, which he had come so close to being on that night. And maybe there was some justice five years later, because sometimes there is in sports -- just not always -- when it was Leyland’s team coming from behind in a Game 7, Game 7 of the World Series this time, to beat Cleveland.

You think about all the baseball days and nights with him, when he was managing the Pirates and the Marlins and the Rockies and finally having that tremendous run in Detroit, where Tigers fans will always wonder how the two World Series he gave them might have gone differently if the Tigers hadn’t twice swept American League Championship Series and then had to wait a week, feeling as if they were nearly calcifying, for the World Series to start.

Always in memory, though, there is is Jim Leyland: Being wise and funny and showing you, across all those days and nights, how truly and how much he loved the baseball life.

My wife comes from Perrysburg, and so we always shared that. I was sitting with him on another day at Shea, talking about some of the local landmarks in that town near Toledo, finally mentioning a club of which my wife’s family was a member.

“Yeah,” Leyland growled. “My brother and me used to cut the grass there.”

He said that staring out at all the green grass in front of him, the day just beginning. He would eventually end up joining the list of managers who won pennants in both leagues. He once famously said that it was time to go when the pain of losing finally outweighed the joy of winning. All of it has now taken him to Cooperstown, which next summer will receive one more honored guest, this one a catcher who never made it past Double-A as a player, but became a baseball immortal, anyway.