Former manager, who guided club to playoffs four times, honored pregame
DETROIT -- The Tigers have played only 19 home games since Jim Leyland retired as manager, but his absence from Comerica Park was never going to be a long one.
On Saturday, Leyland returned to the ballpark as the guest of honor of a pregame ceremony. He again made the walk he made so many times out to the mound -- only this time, it wasn't to remove a pitcher from the game but to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.
Leyland received a loud standing ovation as he strode out to throw his pitch to bench coach Gene Lamont, whom Leyland worked with for decades.
"I didn't really want all this hoopla, to be honest with you," Leyland said before the ceremony. "I certainly didn't ask for anything like this, but it certainly means a lot to me that the Tigers thought enough of me to bring me back."
Before Leyland delivered his remarks, a video tribute to him was played on the scoreboard. Though all of the festivities might have been more than Leyland bargained for when he stepped away from the job less than seven months ago, there were benefits to returning.
"It gives me a chance to say 'Thank you' to the fans," Leyland said. "Everything happened so fast last year that I didn't get a chance to thank them, so I'm going to briefly do that today."
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Leyland took over the Tigers after the 2005 season and led a franchise that hadn't had a winning season since 1993 to heights it hadn't seen since '84. Just as impressive, he turned what looked like a Cinderella story in 2006 into the start of a perennial contender.
Six of Leyland's eight Tigers squads finished with a winning record. Four of them went to the playoffs. The last three won the American League Central title and advanced to at least the AL Championship Series, joining Leyland with Hughie Jennings from a century ago as the only managers to lead Detroit to three consecutive postseason berths.
"It was a great run," Leyland said of his Tigers stint. "The missing piece is the World Series trophy, so that will forever be held against us. But it was such a wonderful run for everybody."
But Leyland's time as manager in Detroit comprised just eight of his 51 years of professional baseball. For someone who hit .222 as a Minor League catcher and thought he might have to go back to the factories of Perrysburg, Ohio, it has been quite a career.
Leyland's 700 regular-season managerial wins are the third-most in Tigers history, trailing only Sparky Anderson (1,331) and Jennings (1,131); his .540 winning percentage as Detroit manager ranks only behind Steve O'Neill (.551 from 1943-48) among managers with at least 500 wins.
Leyland's 1,769 wins overall rank 15th all-time among Major League managers. His eight playoff appearances tie him for seventh on the all-time list, a group that includes Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Hall of Famers Casey Stengel, John McGraw, Joe McCarthy and Connie Mack.
"To you, to Katie, to the rest of your family. … Thank you for all you have done," general manager Dave Dombrowski said during the ceremony.
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Leyland worked his way up to the big leagues after more than a decade managing in the Tigers' farm system and helping develop prospects such as Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson. He got his shot as a big league coach with the White Sox in 1982 under La Russa, a Minor League managerial opponent who became a lifelong friend.
Leyland was a relatively unknown candidate for the managerial opening in Pittsburgh when Chuck Tanner stepped down in 1985, but success came relatively quickly. Leyland built the Pirates into a perennial contender on a small-market budget, winning three consecutive National League East titles from 1990-92.
Leyland was Barry Bonds' first manager, forging a relationship that was fiery at times -- the two argued on the field and on camera at Spring Training in 1991 -- but fiercely loyal. He was the last Bucs manager with a winning season until Clint Hurdle, who counts Leyland among his biggest influences, led Pittsburgh back to the postseason last year.
When Dombrowski wanted a proven manager to lead a win-now Florida Marlins team in 1997, he turned to Leyland. With a cast of stars that included Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Moises Alou and Al Leiter, Leyland led the Marlins into the playoffs for the first time, then through the postseason to a World Series championship.
That team was dismantled soon after the parade, leaving Leyland to manage a 1998 team comprised largely of prospects and role players to 108 losses. Leyland seemed ready for retirement after a disappointing '99 season managing in Colorado, but recharged after six years off and found his dream opportunity to return to his old organization.
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In his new role as special assistant to Dombrowski, Leyland has found the perfect balance of retirement and baseball. Already this season, he has visited Detroit's Double-A affiliate in Erie, and he plans on visiting Triple-A Toledo soon.
"It's less strenuous, to be honest with you," Leyland, 69, said. "I like it because you're still kind of a part of it, but you're way back in the background. At my age, that's where you belong."
The job also comes with its fair share of perks. For example, Leyland was invited to stop by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch's box during Saturday's game.
"I haven't been there in eight years," Leyland said.
Leyland has also maintained a friendly relationship with first-year manager Brad Ausmus, who has welcomed Leyland's input.
"He gave his opinion, which for me carries a lot of weight for a number of reasons," Ausmus said. "One, his experience factor. Two, he knows the personnel probably better than anyone else with the exception of maybe Gene Lamont and [pitching coach] Jeff Jones."
That's not to say, however, that this year's edition of the Tigers won't do things differently. They've already changed their style, which is partly a function of personnel and partly due to the managerial change.
"I think the fans were ready for some people that could steal bases and go first to third," Leyland said. "I think they enjoyed our doubles and homers, but it's a different type club."
Ausmus is quite content keeping some things the same, though. And he certainly hopes the success of the Leyland era rolls over.