coiled upward from the ashtray and, illuminated by the fluorescent lights
above, hung in a thin bluish cloud around the wise, old, gray head of Jim
Leyland. The manager of the Detroit Tigers, dressed for baseball last Saturday
five hours before game time, pulled his stockinged feet off his desk at
Comerica Park and paced toward the bathroom. He looked in the mirror, found
nothing to occupy this slowly passing time except for smoothing the hair on the
back of his head, turned and paced back to his desk. "I feel good. I feel
anxious," said Leyland, who upon waking at 7:15 that morning had been
visited by his trusted muse, his gut feeling, and had made his last lineup
decision: Rookie Alexis Gomez would be his DH against the Oakland A's in Game 4
of the American League Championship Series. � Smoke and mirrors. That would
seem as good an explanation as any for why the Tigers--one year removed from a
91-loss season, three years from being the losingest outfit in AL history (119
losses), 13 years from their last winning season and 22 from their last World
Series--are in the Fall Classic, having swept Oakland with an unprecedented
postseason run to the AL pennant. Said injured lefthander Mike Maroth, one of
10 Tigers left from the rock-bottom 2003 bunch, after the 6--3 clincher on
Saturday, "It's still surreal for me to realize the Detroit Tigers are
going to the World Series!" � In no other city could the 102nd World Series
possibly be more meaningful. First, Detroit was one of only six cities that had
not made a Series appearance since 1984. Second, the five other laggards
( Arlington, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Seattle) hadn't suffered as
many lost games as Detroit had in those 22 long years or, far worse, as many
lost jobs. The Tigers' success comes against the backdrop of a slumping U.S.
auto industry that has led to the elimination of 73,000 jobs in the past three
years with another 85,000 cuts, according to a University of Michigan study,
expected by 2008. The state's average household income has fallen below the
national average for the first time since the federal government began tracking
such figures in the 1960s. "People are hurting," closer Todd Jones
says, "so hopefully for three hours each night we can give them something
Truth is, the
return of the World Series to Detroit isn't the product of smoke and mirrors
but, as much as anything, the sweat and tears of Leyland, who in one year has
joined the company of Lee Iacocca in the pantheon of Detroit turnaround kings.
Having returned to the dugout after a six-year recovery from managerial
burnout, Leyland, 61, did more than mold the Tigers into winners. He reaffirmed
the worth and influence of a hands-on manager. Says Jones, "He's probably
responsible for 20 to 25 wins just by keeping guys confident and putting guys
in situations where they can succeed."
That the Tigers
were, in every sense, Leyland's team was never more obvious than on the eve of
the ALCS. He closed the door to the visiting clubhouse of Oakland's McAfee
Coliseum and gathered his team for a meeting. "I want to read you
something," he began. Back in spring training, when nobody--not Leyland,
not his coaches, not his players--considered the possibility of Detroit's
playing in the World Series, Leyland showed his coaches an essay that his then
14-year-old son, Patrick, had written about what defines a winner. The proud
father showed the essay (for which Patrick had earned an A-plus) to his staff,
then put it away for the next six months.
On Oct. 9, fresh
off three straight ALDS wins over the Yankees, Leyland broke out the essay and
read it aloud to his team. By the end of it, Leyland's voice was cracking and
his eyes were welling with tears. Five days later, on the morning of Game 4
against the A's, Leyland turned emotional again just thinking about it.
"Not just because I'm a proud father, and I am," he said, "but
because [Patrick] captured in his own words the kind of things we're trying to
accomplish here. And what really got me was, after I was done reading it, a
bunch of guys came up to me and said, 'Skip, can you make a copy of that? I
want a copy for myself.'"
The Tigers have
played inspired baseball, not only winning seven straight in the postseason but
also taking the last six by three or more runs. No team had ever won more than
four straight postseason games by that margin. Detroit so dominated Oakland
that if this had been a Ryder Cup, the gentlemanly thing for the A's would have
been to concede the ALCS before its official completion.
It hardly mattered
that the Tigers lost their first baseman ( Sean Casey) and most valuable
reliever ( Joel Zumaya) to injuries, or that Leyland became the first manager to
win three straight postseason games with a different starting shortstop in each
game ( Carlos Guillen, Neifi Perez and Ramon Santiago). Detroit's
acetylene-torch pitchers held Oakland to nine runs and a .161 average with
runners on. At the same time, the Tigers' lineup hummed along with such balance
that every spot in the order accounted for at least two runs scored. The last
three came in especially dramatic fashion, when rightfielder Magglio Ordonez
became only the eighth player to end a postseason series with a home run,
blasting a three-run walk-off shot against Huston Street in the 6--3 coda.
"He makes us
feel bulletproof," Jones says of Leyland. "If he batted me sixth, I'd
feel like I was going to get two hits."
Says third base
coach Gene Lamont, one of Leyland's closest friends since they played together
in the Detroit minor league system in 1966, "After Jim took the job, we
talked, and he said, 'I want people in Detroit to say, 'I went to the game last
night.' I think we've done that. For a while people were afraid to even admit
they went to a game."
On the same day
that he fired manager Alan Trammell last October, Detroit general manager Dave
Dombrowski called Leyland, who had teamed with Dombrowski in Florida to lead
the Marlins to the 1997 world championship. Leyland had spent 2000 to '05
scouting for St. Louis and advising one of his best friends in baseball,
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Leyland credited the smooth, successful
operations of the Cardinals with reigniting his passion to manage.
"Everyone I talked to that winter," Leyland says, "told me the
Tigers had good players, but they were not a good team. They had some
expectations [last year] and didn't live up to them early, and then things kind
of went to hell. That's why I've never been big on setting goals."
Leyland is the
paterfamilias manager, with an abiding belief that a team is no different than
a family, and he asserted his principles quickly. A week into the exhibition
season, he lit into his team after a trouncing of the Yankees. "Guys had
been high-fiving each other and yukking it up in the dugout," Jones says.
"He called us together and told us it was time to be professional, to treat
the other team with respect."