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Jim Leyland clearly enjoyed his six-year sabbatical from managing. "It was a wonderful time," says the longtime skipper, who quit as manager of the Colorado Rockies after the 1999 season (with two years and $4 million remaining on his contract) because he felt burned out. "I got to watch my kids grow up. I stayed home, took my kids to school and did the things that fathers do. I was happy."
It was about two years ago that Leyland, 60, says he started to feel the itch to manage again, so when Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski called early this month about the vacant manager's job in Motown, Leyland was ready--even though he had vowed that he'd never manage again when he left Colorado. (He went 72-90 in his only season there.) "I really thought I was done," says Leyland, who managed the Pirates and the Marlins for 13 years, winning a World Series with Florida in 1997. "In the end, though, I didn't want my managerial career to end the way it did [in Colorado]. I wanted another shot."
Officially introduced on Oct. 4 at Comerica Park as Alan Trammell's replacement (and Detroit's sixth manager since 1996), Leyland faces the daunting task of turning around the woebegone Tigers, who haven't finished above .500 since '93. In his introductory press conference he was candid about his need to get up to speed, admitting to local reporters, "I know very little about your ball club," and "I don't really know the American League."
Leyland is quick to point out that he never completely left the game, though. After quitting the Rockies, he took a job as a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals and spent each spring training with the team in Jupiter, Fla. Residing in Pittsburgh with his wife, Katie, and children, Patrick, 14, and Kellie, 12, he attended virtually every Pirates home game. "The time off gave me some perspective," says Leyland, who was 41 when he managed the Pirates in 1986. "Being around [ Cardinals manager] Tony La Russa was a terrific experience. He deals with today's players so well, he's always on top of what's going on in the clubhouse, and he creates the best atmosphere I've ever been around. He's demanding, yet all his players respect him."
Leyland's days have become decidedly more up-tempo since he took the Detroit job, as he meets with team officials to get a crash course on his new club and calls his players to introduce himself. He also wasted no time in filling out his staff, surrounding himself with five ex-Pirates, including Andy Van Slyke (first base coach) and former Pittsburgh managers Gene Lamont (third base coach) and Lloyd McClendon (bullpen coach).
Leyland says his biggest failure in Colorado was losing control of a veteran clubhouse. "I didn't attack the manager's job the way you should," he says. "Running a team, there are always egos involved and little fires you have to put out. I didn't put out those fires."
He will likely have his share of flare-ups with the Tigers, who trudged to a 71-91 record last year and are just two seasons removed from the most losses in AL history (43-119). Catcher Ivan Rodriguez was reportedly fined a day's pay for returning late after going to Colombia while serving a four-game suspension in August, and said a few weeks later that he couldn't wait to get home to start his off-season vacation; outfielder Magglio Ordonez proclaimed, "We stink," in a Detroit Free Press interview in September and added, "We need to change our attitude."
"When a club doesn't meet expectations, it's normal to start pointing fingers," says Leyland. "I'm not concerned about [clubhouse] issues. We'll start next season with a clean slate." He says he's more troubled by some on-field problems that he's already spotted in his early assessment of his team: a high strikeout rate and a lack of speed.
Says Leyland, "I think I'm the only one in this organization who wishes spring training started tomorrow."