"I knew the first day of minor league training camp that I never was going to play baseball in the major leagues," says Leyland. "I'd had hopes—everyone who signs a contract has high hopes—but once I saw those other players and how good they were, I knew I didn't have a chance."
The year was 1964. The place was Lakeland, home of the Detroit Tigers' minor league complex. The obvious next move was to fold those high hopes into a neat square, place them in his wallet and return home to Perrysburg, Ohio, to begin life in the workaday world. Isn't that what most people do? Adjust.
Leyland adjusted in another direction. Can't make the major leagues? Fine. He would try to make the minors. In one day, he changed a boyhood dream. He took away all those zeros at the end of his paycheck. He took away the headlines and the innocent expectations. Just playing baseball was enough. Surviving.
"I know now that I wasn't signed with the idea that someday I could play in the major leagues," he says. "I was a catcher. Teams like to sign a lot of catchers, just for training camp, because they need someone to catch all those pitchers."
For six years, from 1964 to '69, he played in the lower reaches of Detroit's organizational chart, never rising above Double A ball, never batting much higher than .200. He tried all the stances, all the gimmicks. He still couldn't hit, especially for power. He hit four home runs in those six years and remembers every one of them. To make himself useful, he took on every odd job possible. Need someone to coach first base? Need someone to drive the bus? Need someone in the bullpen?
He would return to Perrysburg (pop. 10,215) in the off-season and answer the embarrassing question with honesty.
"How'd you do?"
"Lousy. I batted .200."
He was, he thinks, the only Perrysburg High grad ever to sign a pro baseball contract. (Another kid he knew who was three years older, Jerry Glanville, was moving into a football career, but that's another story.) Lousy, he would tell the people of Perrysburg; then he would add, "But I was doing something I love."
Leyland says, "I had the fever. I never thought about quitting. I always had the fever."