Excited Leyland named USA skipper for Classic

April 14th, 2016

World Baseball Classic final between the United States and Venezuela. Eighth inning. One out. Runner on second. Team USA leads by a run. Miguel Cabrera steps to the plate ... 

Jim Leyland, named Friday as Team USA's manager for the 2017 WBC, chuckled over the phone.

"I already told Miggy I'm going to walk him," Leyland said. "I've been kidding with him. In that situation, I'm putting up four fingers."

Leyland hasn't had to worry about crucial in-game decisions since the fall of 2013, when he retired from managing after Cabrera and the rest of Leyland's Detroit Tigers lost in the American League Championship Series. That will change in March, when the new last, great challenge of Leyland's managerial career will be to reverse Team USA's disappointing WBC history: a 10-10 record and zero championships over the tournament's first three editions.

"I'll definitely be ready," Leyland told MLB.com during a telephone interview. "I'm never going to manage again after this. I didn't think I'd manage this, either. But when I was asked, I could not turn this down. Not from an ego standpoint, but it's the honor of being asked to manage for your country.

"This is probably going to take me a little time, to start thinking about game situations, to sharpen up again. Contrary to what a lot of people think, I don't try to manage the game anymore. I just watch the Tigers, watch the game, watch the players. I don't think too much about the strategy. That's not my business anymore, not my job anymore.

"I'm not going to be a manager anymore, but this is a special thing that came up. I agreed to it right away. I'm very honored."

In many ways, Leyland, 71, is an ideal candidate to lead Team USA. He has Hall of Fame credentials: 1,769 Major League victories (15th all-time), three pennants and one World Series title. Leyland is closely involved with the game as an adviser to Major League Baseball and the Tigers, giving him in-depth knowledge of the players who will compete for -- and against -- Team USA. While he no longer wants the grind of 162 games in a Major League dugout, his passion and competitiveness remain.

And so a little less than one year from now, Leyland will again stand near home plate during the "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- the son of a glass factory worker from Perrysburg, Ohio, with "U-S-A" across his chest and America's greatest players lined up beside him.

If you know Leyland, you know his eyes have welled up a time or two already.

"I'm sure people are tired of me being emotional," he said. "It's going to be a huge honor. And you're going to hear more than one anthem, too, and we'll be very respectful when we hear the other country's anthem. It's going be a thrill. This is a really special honor."

Leyland acknowledges that he wasn't a big proponent of the WBC during his tenure as Tigers manager because he was primarily concerned about his players' readiness for the regular season. That perspective could work to Team USA's benefit now, because of his credibility in communicating with MLB clubs about player use.

Whenever the Tigers acquired a prominent hitter during Leyland's eight-year tenure in Detroit, he'd grab a notebook and sketch out every lineup that came to mind. He's already doing that for Team USA.

"I've written down a team with every player possible at a particular position, but I have to learn the process," Leyland said. "I went through all the MLB outfielders who are eligible to play for the U.S. -- all the catchers, all the second basemen, all the first basemen ... I'm in the process of trying to put them in some kind of order.

"You also have to remember that you're putting a team together. How you piece that team together is very important. It's not necessarily all the best players. You'd love to have the biggest names, for sure, but you might not take them all. You have to have utility players, too.

"But I don't want to jump the gun here, because there's a protocol I need to follow. You have to get permission from the teams to talk with the players, and the players have to want to play ... I'm just hoping I get enough cooperation from enough good players. I'm not going to pressure anybody. That's not my style."

If Leyland follows Joe Torre's model from the 2013 WBC, Team USA's 28-man roster -- revealed during the winter -- will include 13 position players and 15 pitchers, because of pitch limits instituted to keep pitchers healthy.

And as March nears, the banter will increase among fans, players and even the managers: Venezuelan legend Omar Vizquel -- the Tigers' first base coach -- will manage Cabrera and the other stars from his homeland.

Leyland already told him the plan for handling Cabrera.

"But if Omar's got Victor Martinez hitting behind him," Leyland said, "that might be hard to do."