A manager and a friend: Verlander, Miggy honor Leyland

December 5th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Justin Verlander was a hard-throwing top prospect with two middling Major League starts under his belt when he first met Jim Leyland. He made enough of an impression in their first Spring Training together that the manager scuttled talk of more Minor League seasoning and put the 23-year-old in his rotation. I’ll take talent, Leyland said, starting a philosophy that carried throughout his tenure as Tigers manager.

A few years later, as Verlander struggled to grow into the role of an ace, Leyland did his best to take pressure off him. But the skipper also encouraged the right-hander to temper his aggressive approach and pitch smart, knowing where he could get outs in a lineup and where he would be better served by pitching more carefully.

In 2012, as Verlander labored to finish off what ended up being a 131-pitch complete game at Kansas City, Leyland marched to the mound for a visit and half-jokingly told Verlander he was going to get Leyland fired if he didn’t pitch more efficiently.

They didn’t always see eye to eye -- Leyland would joke about Verlander disagreeing just for the sake of disagreement -- but they made a winning pair. And as Leyland celebrated a Hall of Fame selection by the Contemporary Era committee, Verlander made a rare social media post to toast his first big league skipper.

“Congratulations Skip!! I’m so incredibly happy for you and your family,” Verlander posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, his first post since August. “When we first met I was so nervous … you were already a legend! You quickly became more than just a manager but a friend … Thank you for your faith in me from the beginning!”

Verlander wasn’t the only likely Hall of Famer honoring his old manager. Miguel Cabrera was already an All-Star when a trade brought him from the Marlins to the Tigers, but Leyland pushed him in his early years to keep the same intensity in every at-bat, no matter the situation, rather than giving away outs. Leyland would challenge him to try it for a stretch.

Cabrera evolved from an All-Star to a batting champion, MVP and Triple Crown winner. And he didn’t forget the impact his old manager made.

“You took my game to another level,” Cabrera wrote in an Instagram post. “The two lines that you always told me: ‘You are going to do something in the game today,’ and, ‘If you don’t want to play, I will put [in] someone else.’ Love you JEFE.”

Leyland was overwhelmed by the outpouring of congratulations and support from former players, coaches and colleagues. He counted 294 text messages on his phone.

“I’m very happy the last 24 hours because I’ve gotten so many texts from so many great players,” Leyland said on Monday. “But I can tell you this: I’ve also got a lot of great texts from former Minor League players, and that means a lot to me. Guys that never made it, guys that you had to tell them their career was over, that’s not easy to do.

“Some of the players that I got texts from have been big leaguers, they’ve been MVPs, they’ve had great careers and been world champions, maybe a batting title. When their careers are over, they’ve made money, they’ve had a successful career. Certainly you hate to see the end come for anybody, but when you’re telling 18- and 19-year-old kids it’s over, that’s a little tougher than people think.

“I’ve appreciated everything I’ve got from the Justin Verlanders and the Barry Bonds, I can go on and on and on, but also the Mark Wagners and some Minor League guys that people might not know about today, that’s special, too.”

That level of respect resonates.

“It’s high aspirations to have players love and respect you at the same time on the level which they do with Jim,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “And that’s pretty remarkable. One thing that Jim brings is authenticity, and I hope we can all grab a little bit of that.”

Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris said he was beaming Sunday night at the news of Leyland’s induction.

“I saw Jim [Monday] morning, and he gave me this huge hug,” Harris said. “He was just the happiest human I’ve ever seen. I’ve only known him for a year, but he’s been so generous with his time and his advice for me. I really treasure that relationship, and I couldn’t be happier for him. I can’t wait to hear his speech in July.”

So what cap is Leyland going to wear into the Hall? The former Pirates, Marlins, Rockies and Tigers manager is holding off on that decision.

“I’m going to be discussing that with the Hall of Fame committee, and I’m going to take their advice on something like that,” Leyland said. “When you’ve managed several teams, I do not want to disrespect anybody who I managed for. So I’m hoping that the Hall of Fame will help me along with that, possibly with no logo [on the cap]. I’m not sure just yet.”