October 16, 2006

Positivity: Jim Leyland’s Shining Moment Is Richly Deserved

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 6:03 am

The Detroit Tigers are, improbably, going to The World Series, having gone from worst to first in three short years.

Their manager, Jim Leyland, is one of the special people in sports. This opening excerpt from a January 1993 Sports Illustrated article (link is to a library database that won’t be available without appropriate library subscription), written during the winter after his Pittsburgh Pirates lost a heart-breaking 7-game series to the Atlanta Braves in the bottom of the 9th inning, illustrates just how special:

Glad to be in the game

He sits in a rocking chair. He wears a black-and-white hounds-tooth-check jacket over a red turtleneck. The cigarettes on his desk are in a black-and-white-and-red package. As he goes about his work, the package is always within reach, as if the Marlboros were a matching handbag.

“Most of these are very nice,” Pittsburgh Pirate manager Jim Leyland says as he sorts through hundreds of letters in his office at Three Rivers Stadium. “Some are holiday cards. Some are ‘Congratulations on Manager of the Year.’ Some are ‘Why the hell didn’t you bunt in the playoffs?’” Behind the desk is a low end table. On the end table is a battered telephone. Hunched over the telephone as if at a child’s tea set, Leyland cold-calls Pittsburghers to explain why he didn’t bunt in the playoffs.

“The people who include their phone numbers, I put their letters off in a pile and call them up,” he says. “Some people are shocked. Some people will not believe it’s me. And some people tell me, ‘I appreciate the call, but you still screwed up.’”

This is the right way to handle it, he likes to say of the letters or whatever it might be. I’m not anybody’s boss, I’m an employee of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he likes to say. Bill works for A.P. Parts, Tom’s the pastor at St. Aloysius, Jim works for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Danny works for Permatex, Larry works for Mercy Hospital, and Judy and Sharon are both in nursing, he likes to say, lumping himself in with the rest of the labor-intensive Leyland family of Perrysburg, Ohio.

He is one of seven children. His wife is one of 11 children. His father was one of 16 children. His father worked the swing shift at the Libbey-Owens-Ford glass factory in Toledo for 48 years. From his father, Leyland learned to be professional, which is another favorite phrase, and to bust ass, which is yet another.

“To be honest,” says Leyland, eyeing a multicolored pile of envelopes, “I get a lot of letters where people are just chewing me out. They’re pissed off about everything. ‘The —– players make too much money. You’re the worst —– manager I’ve ever seen.’ Those, I throw away. You can’t reason with those people.”

More often, though, it is a letter like the one he got from a little girl who enclosed her grade-school essay, an essay about the man she so likes to watch on TV in the summer, the doleful stick figure in the black baseball cap. The subject of the essay called the author and invited her and her father to be his guests at a Pirate game.

“You get a lot of requests,” says Leyland, his right hand on another stack of correspondence as if he’s taking some kind of postal oath. “Obviously, you can’t answer them all. You can only donate so much equipment. But you know, maybe somebody would like you to call their dad in the hospital and just talk to him. That’s all. Just talk to him, but it might make him feel better. And it’s nice to be able to do that, you know? That’s life. That’s the real world, you know?”

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