NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Jim Leyland was in his prime form on the podium Monday afternoon at baseball’s Winter Meetings. He was a Hall of Famer, having been voted in Sunday by the 16-member Contemporary Era Committee, and he was weaving stories and telling jokes.
“About 10 minutes to 7 [o'clock], I left the family room and went up to lie in bed for a little bit, thinking about it, figuring that I probably would not make it,” Leyland recalled as he described waiting for a call from the Hall. “My wife and my son were coming up the stairs just when I got the call. My wife and my son heard a lady’s voice on the other end. My wife said, ‘Who is that?’
“I said, ‘It’s Jake from State Farm.’”
Further back in the media room, Pirates manager Derek Shelton stood and took it all in. He has been hearing stories and jokes from Leyland over breakfast for the past few years.
“Unbelievably excited to be in the room,” Shelton said. “To watch him [talk] about it was emotional just because of the fact that he’s meant a ton to me.”
Though Leyland is officially a Tigers special assistant, his ties to the Pirates remain deep. He still lives in Pittsburgh, where he remains royalty from his decade as a Pirates manager. He still attends games at PNC Park and follows the organization.
So when news broke after the 2019 season that the Pirates were hiring Shelton as their skipper, Shelton’s first Major League managerial post, Leyland took an interest. He reached out to Shelton over the phone to offer his congratulations and any advice he could provide.
The problem was at the other end of the line.
“I kept getting this call from a Detroit number and didn’t answer it,” Shelton explained later Monday. “Finally, I was [at] dinner one night and sitting with my wife and some friends, and I may have had a glass of bourbon or two, and the phone rang again. I said, ‘I’m going to answer this call.’
“I answered it, and it was this gruff voice: ‘This is Jim Leyland.’
“‘Oh, wow.’ I stood up.”
Leyland took no offense. Instead, he offered to take Shelton out for breakfast whenever he got to Pittsburgh to tell him about the city and the expectations that come with managing the Pirates.
Shelton took him up on the offer.
“Right from the get-go, it was a sounding board,” Shelton said.
Four years later, the breakfast club is still going. In fact, it has expanded. Shelton’s bench coach, Don Kelly, played for Leyland with the Tigers and took Leyland’s advice when he got into coaching five years ago. Third-base coach Mike Rabelo played briefly for Leyland, too, then worked with him while managing in the Tigers farm system before joining Shelton’s staff.
Even Jim’s son Patrick, a manager in the White Sox farm system, joins them when he can.
“Now it’s great,” Shelton said. “Sometimes it’s just he and I having breakfast, sometimes it’s three of us, sometimes it’s four of us. To be able to have that, I think, is really important. I appreciate it. He invested in me, and so that’s why today I think is so special for the city of Pittsburgh, because he lives there.”
Leyland has been where Shelton was then. He was a 41-year-old with good Major League coaching experience and a long Minor League managerial resume, but no track record as a big league manager, when the Pirates hired him in 1986 to replace the great Chuck Tanner. Syd Thrift, then the Pirates’ general manager, took a chance on him, and he never forgot it.
Leyland wasn’t a big name; he joked that the newspaper headlines at his hire were, “Jim Who?” But he won over a clubhouse that included several big-name prospects, led by Barry Bonds.
“One thing I’ve always said, and this is a compliment,” Leyland explained Monday, “when you have a Major League manager like Aaron Boone that was a good, good player, for the most part, they have to lose the players’ respect. When you have a Minor League guy -- not just me, but guys who came up through the Minor Leagues and weren’t players -- you have to earn the players’ respect.
“That’s what I tell my son: Show the players what you know, don’t tell them what you know.”
Leyland now has the ultimate sign of respect, from Cooperstown. He also has Shelton’s gratitude for a gesture that keeps going with the breakfast club.