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Touching 'Em All
TOM VERDUCCI
October 23, 2006
The auto industry has taken a beating and, for the better part of the last two decades, so too has Detroit's baseball team, but Jim Leyland's Tigers have lit up the Motor City with their overpowering run to the World Series
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October 23, 2006

Touching 'em All

The auto industry has taken a beating and, for the better part of the last two decades, so too has Detroit's baseball team, but Jim Leyland's Tigers have lit up the Motor City with their overpowering run to the World Series

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According to popular legend, Leyland turned the corner on changing the clubhouse culture last April 17, after a 10--2 loss to the Cleveland Indians. In a postgame meeting with reporters he lambasted his team for giving a lazy, unfocused effort; the Tigers promptly won 12 of their next 15 games. In truth, though, his signature moment had occurred days earlier after one of his players, whom he declines to name, showed up Lamont for holding him at third base instead of sending him home. An angry Leyland called a closed-door meeting after the game and singled out the player. "If you ever do anything like that again, or anybody else," he told the team, "I'll quit. Because I don't want anything to do with that kind of horses---."

Says hitting coach Don Slaught, "That was the day they got it. He told them, 'It's my team.' It's Jim Leyland's team. It's not a star player's team. It's his team."

Long ago Leyland learned that a manager must act on his instincts. The worst feeling, he says, is to look back at a game or a moment in the clubhouse and say, "I knew I should've listened to my gut and done something." No one, says Slaught, has a better knack for saying the right thing at the right time. A former catcher for Leyland in Pittsburgh, Slaught recalls a game in the early 1990s in which reserve outfielder Gary Varsho went hitless and committed an error in a rare start. Varsho was worried about being sent to the minors. Leyland waited until the next day to ask him in front of the team, "Varsho, do you wear contacts?"

"Yes," he replied.

"Well, the next time I put you in there, wear them."

The team, Varsho included, cracked up. "With one line," says Slaught, "he told Varsho he wasn't going anywhere, that he was going to be playing again and that he was one of the guys."

Before the second game of the ALCS, Leyland saw Gomez in the lobby of the Tigers' hotel and, moved by nothing more than his gut, told Gomez he would be the DH for that evening's 5:15 game. Renowned among the Tigers for his prodigious batting practice home runs, Gomez had only one career homer--or 25 fewer than Marcus Thames, the player he would be replacing, had this season.

"You know why?" said Leyland to Gomez of his decision to play him. "You're a great five o'clock hitter."

Naturally, Gomez whacked a homer that night and drove in four in Detroit's 8--5 win.

Leyland's aggressive style plays well in the urgency of the postseason. In Game 1 of the ALCS, with the Tigers leading the A's 3--0, he visited lefthander Nate Robertson on the mound with runners on second and third and no outs in the fourth. "Don't worry about these runners," Leyland said. "I don't care if they score, but focus on not letting any more on base." Robertson whiffed the next three hitters with the hardest fastballs he threw all night. "What the skipper does is reinforce every day what we're capable of," Robertson says. "And we believe it."

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