Leyland brimming with gratitude -- and jokes -- after HOF election

December 5th, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- About midway through Jim Leyland’s first season as Tigers manager in 2006, the team swept the Cubs in a weekend series at Wrigley Field to improve to 46-24. Kenny Rogers won the finale for his 200th career victory, and the players celebrated in the clubhouse afterwards. Leyland was so touched by the camaraderie for Rogers, who had just joined the team the previous offseason, that he got emotional after the game and kicked the media out of his office so they couldn’t watch him cry.

It was the first of many times Leyland got emotional in his office, always about what his team and his players accomplished. On Monday, it was finally his turn.

He was at his storytelling, joke-cracking best. He was not weepy.

“I’m not going to cry today,” Leyland said from the podium at baseball’s Winter Meetings, “but I did cry a little bit [after getting the phone call from the Hall of Fame on Sunday]. I had a few tears of joy.”

Leyland had just about given up hope. He had been told to expect a call from the Hall between 6:30 and 7:15 p.m. if he’d been voted in, and the phone didn’t ring right away. Maybe they were trying to arrange a flight for him, he reasoned. But as each minute passed slowly, hope diminished. His wife, Katie, stayed optimistic.

“About 10 minutes to 7:00, 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,” he said. “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.’”

He could joke because it was actually Jane Forbes Clark, chair of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was in.

About 40 minutes later came the official announcement. Then came the deluge of congratulations -- 294 texts by Leyland’s count. Former Tigers great Justin Verlander sent one. Former Pirates great Barry Bonds sent another. But so did many lesser-known players who had crossed paths with the skipper over the years. Some of their careers ended well short of the Majors, something Leyland -- a former Tigers catching prospect who never played above Double-A -- could understand and respect.

“I’m very happy the last 24 hours because I’ve got so many texts from so many great players,” Leyland said. “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 had great careers -- maybe world champions, maybe won a batting title. They made money, they had a successful, great career. Certainly you hate to see the end come for anybody, but when you’re telling an 18- or 19-year-old kid it’s over, that’s a little tougher than people think.

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

That’s what made Leyland not only a great manager but a beloved one: He treated great players and role players the same. He thinks it came from being part of a large family with so many siblings and different personalities.

Leyland’s management of star players became part of his aura, made famous by a video of his Spring Training exchange with Bonds in 1991. His differences of opinion with Verlander became a running gag, while his work to convince Miguel Cabrera to approach each at-bat with the same intensity helped build a Triple Crown winner, two-time MVP and four-time batting champion.

But Leyland will be just as known in Detroit for managing Don Kelly, who became a folk hero among Tigers fans for his ability to play all over the field and his home run in Game 5 of the 2011 American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium. And as Leyland talked about the honor of going into Cooperstown next July, he was already pondering how to thank so many people without boring the audience, as he put it.

“I actually signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1963,” Leyland said. “I ended up getting to the Detroit Tigers in 2006, so it took me a heckuva long time.”

No, the speech will not be boring. It will be emotional. And there will be jokes.