It was 1:47 a.m. on Monday when the music finally hit Jim Leyland, and he began to move. For an instant nobody in his corner of the cigar-choked, champagne-soaked Florida Marlins clubhouse knew how to react. Nobody expects a celebrating manager to go beyond the usual caveman shout and beer-gut massage, and with good reason. It doesn't happen. Do you really want to envision Connie Mack, Chuck Tanner, Earl Weaver or Tommy Lasorda boogying? But suddenly there was Leyland, his normal undertaker's face replaced by a mask of pure bliss, transported by the heavy boom of the dance-club hit Men in Black. He planted his shoeless feet in the damp carpet and closed his eyes. His hips began to swivel, his knees pumped. He danced. There was a beverage in his right hand and a huge droopy T-shirt on his back. The crowd backed off and began to hoot. A young woman started screeching, "You go, Jim! Go, Jim! Go, Jim!"
He went all right. Truth be told, he looked pretty damn good doing it. Who could blame him? If you were a 52-year-old manager who'd spent a decade hitting fungoes in places like Clinton, Iowa, and Evansville, Ind., before making it to the majors; if you'd been tagged as a genius who couldn't win; if you'd finally gotten a team brimming with talent but struggling with injuries and a fed-up owner and critics who dwelled on the payroll—and if, after all that, you made it to a World Series that everyone decided was just god-awful, well, you wouldn't be shy when it was over either. Especially because, after Leyland superbly handled his bullpen in winning Game 7, all that static disappeared. He's a champion now. For the first time, he has the last word.
"Yeah, we spent some money," Leyland said after a World Series won as much by unknowns as by his much-publicized free-agent stars. "But how about Craig Counsell? How about Edgar Renteria? How about Charles Johnson? How about Livan Hernandez, Felix Heredia? I could go on and on. We won this World Series with a kid who was in Double A last year ( Hernandez], a kid who was in Triple A this year [Counsell]; we lost our best pitcher [ Alex Fernandez]. Nobody's going to ruin this for me tonight by talking about money. We didn't buy this pennant, we won the pennant. We won the World Series. We earned it."
Three times before, he had gone to the National League Championship Series with a talented Pittsburgh Pirates team that couldn't advance to the World Series. Even a two-run lead on the Atlanta Braves heading into the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 championship series wasn't enough—pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera drove in the winning run to deny Leyland once again. He won't admit it, but his friends know the loss ate at him. "It had to, because he was reminded of it so often," says Marlins third base coach Rich Donnelly, who has been with Leyland for 12 years. When Florida opened Game 1 of the '97 championship series in Atlanta, Donnelly said, " FRANCISCO CABRERA was on the scoreboard, the answer to a trivia question. They left it on the board for three innings."
It didn't matter. The Marlins got hot, lost Fernandez to a rotator cuff injury, disposed of the Braves, then Cleveland. Leyland became the conscience of this World Series when he said before Game 5 that talk of this being a boring Series made him puke. He went on to rip the late starting times of the games and the chase for TV ratings and stated, "I've been in baseball 33 years, loading the buses for 18 years, and I'm not apologizing for being here."
The pending sale of the Marlins and his ill-disguised dislike for South Florida prompted speculation about Leyland's future before the Series had ended. Under the terms of his contract, Leyland can leave if the team is sold. After the game he did nothing to dismiss the conjecture about his departure. "Nobody knows what's going on in the organization right now," Leyland said. "Everything's up in the air. How do I know what's going to happen?"
His family rolled into his office at Pro Player Stadium then, cousins and in-laws and his son Patrick, and all uncertainty vanished. Just minutes before, Leyland had said that along with his marriage, winning Game 7 was "the happiest moment of my life." Now here was his wife, Katie, and the two grabbed each other hard. "I'm so proud of you," Katie whispered in his ear. "So proud."
Jim Leyland's eyes were red and shining by the time they let go.