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Farewell to a grumpy, lovable manager
Jim Leyland, occasionally grumpy with the media? I don’t know what the old skipper was talking about Monday during the news conference announcing his retirement.
Wait, maybe I do.
“Get that camera out of here!” Leyland barked in my general direction before Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. “The players are coming out! This is a dugout, not a TV studio!”
Leyland had a point. His Detroit Tigers were slowly filing out of the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway Park for batting practice. And, yes, FOX had a camera and lights set up at the far end of the dugout, where I was waiting to interview Miguel Cabrera for the pregame show.
Waiting. And waiting. And waiting some more.
Cabrera was late, and then he was in a hitters’ meeting, and then . . . well, I approached Leyland, trying to explain the situation.
Leyland launched back into his “get the camera out!” spiel, so we relocated to the field and eventually interviewed Jhonny Peralta when Cabrera failed to show.
No big deal. Knowing Leyland as I did as a dugout reporter for FOX the past eight seasons, I knew that he often was jumpy before games, full of nervous energy. He often would talk to me, right up until game time, and occasionally slip me information. I will never forget how Leyland, in a semi-panic, revealed to me how he might use Mariano Rivera in the 2013 All-Star Game — in the eighth inning and not the ninth, because Rivera had to pitch, damn it, and Leyland wanted to get out of New York City alive.
I love the guy. Most reporters do. Leyland could be contentious, irritable and occasionally unreasonable, but he had a better understanding of our jobs than most managers. He did not mind our questions, as long as he thought they were fair. And he had a broader definition of fair than one might think, considering his crusty, old-school reputation.
Anyway, about an hour after Leyland barked at me, I approached him on the field while he was hitting fungoes, smiling.
“Hey,” I said, “I just work here!”
“I know,” he said quietly. “And I know Miggy was late” — ah, a concession!. “But the camera should not have been there.”
Fair enough. And we moved on, as if nothing had happened.
The Tigers’ appearance in the 2006 World Series was my first real encounter with Leyland in my television role, but I didn’t know him well then. It was during the 2011 ALCS that we started talking more before games. Leyland kept asking me the same question, something that was on his mind.
“Why are all you guys so short?”
Meaning, why are so many sports television reporters — I recall him specifically mentioning Bob Costas and Tim Kurkjian — so vertically challenged?
I told him I would get back to him. And then a few days later, I gave him the answer.
“Because, Jim, none of us can play!”
Naturally, he got a chuckle out of that.
Even in the middle of playoff games, Leyland liked to mess with me — that is, when he wasn’t pacing up and down the dugout, fretting over this or that.
During Game 3, I approached him during the blackout in the second inning, asking if Justin Verlander would come back and pitch. I couldn’t imagine it would be a problem — the umpires were saying the delay would last 15 to 20 minutes, well within the range necessary for a starting pitcher to remain in the game. But, hey, I had to ask.
“We’re going to bring in Alvarez,” Leyland said, referring to rookie left-hander Jose Alvarez, with pitching coach Jeff Jones nodding solemnly at his side. “Justin can’t come back from this.”
Leyland knew me, knew that my reporter’s instincts would cause me to, well, freak out. He got me. He got me good. And, of course, Verlander returned without a problem after the 17-minute delay.
I had an even more unusual encounter with Leyland during Game 5, after Tigers catcher Alex Avila twisted his left knee in a home-plate collision with the Red Sox’s David Ross in the second inning. Once the inning ended, I left my spot on the far end of the dugout to go to the side closer to home plate, nearer to Leyland and his coaches. It was doubtful they would tell me anything, but at least I could see better and perhaps gain insight into whether Avila was OK.
Well, Avila clearly was not OK — he was not moving well, and later took a vicious foul tip off his mask. Leyland finally removed him for Brayan Pena in the fourth, and between innings came over to me with a twinkle in his eye.
“You’ve got a scoop now, dontcha?”
Not really — our cameras had caught Leyland and Avila speaking with Tigers athletic trainer Kevin Rand, and our lead announcer, Joe Buck, already had deduced that Avila was coming out. Besides, who cared? I told Leyland, “I’m not happy about this — this is a shame!”
The next day, in our pregame meeting, Leyland joked with Buck, Tim McCarver, our producer, Pete Macheska, and researcher Steve Horn, that I was all excited, “bloodthirsty,” for the news on Avila. I repeated that I was not, but there was no stopping him. It was all in good fun.
Then came Monday morning.
This time, I thought I might actually have a scoop — a big one. Late Sunday night, I had received a tip that Leyland was retiring. It was too late to call him, and my efforts to confirm the news early Monday morning proved fruitless.
At 9:29 a.m., the Tigers announced via e-mail that they would be holding a press conference at 11:30. At that point, with nothing to lose, I called Leyland and told him what I had heard — that he had told his players after the final game of the ALCS that he was stepping down.
“Well, if you heard that, that’s fine,” Leyland said evenly. “But I’m not going to confirm anything.”
Then, as he often did, he started asking me about other baseball gossip — “who is getting all these managing jobs?”
It was not the time.
“Jim,” I said, “I’m more concerned about the Tigers’ job right now.”
Looking back, perhaps I should have seen this coming. I had interviewed Leyland for FOX after Game 6, and my final question to him was about his future. He had been a manager for 22 years. He did not have a contract for 2014. Did he want to keep going?
Leyland hemmed and hawed, said he would discuss the matter with Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski in a couple of days. He seemed at ease — unusually at ease. As it turned out, he had just given his players the news — news that he first broke to Dombrowski on Sept. 7, when he said he would not manage again next season.
I don’t know who the Tigers will hire. I don’t know what the Mariners, Nationals and Cubs will do with their openings, either. But I know this: None of the new managers will be as entertaining as old No. 10.
Consider what Leyland said in his pregame news conference after he dropped Austin Jackson from the leadoff spot to No. 8 for Game 4 of the ALCS.
“I did what I thought was the right thing to do,” Leyland said. “And I really wanted to give you guys something to write about and talk about. This should be a good time for you.
“You can say I’m nuts, you can say I’m dumb, you can say whatever you want. It does give you something to write about, other than, ‘Jackson struck out 18 times, Leyland needs to do something.’
“So here it is, have a good time with it. We’ll see how it plays out. And I will be willing to answer questions after the game.”
I said it that night on the broadcast: It was Leyland at his feisty, humorous best.
Farewell, skipper. We’ll try to keep the camera out of the dugout, OK?
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