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The fever came mostly from inside, but it also came from his father, James. He had started young Jim playing baseball and had taken him to Cleveland in 1954 for his first major league game. James's advice to his five boys and two girls: If you find something you want to do, stick with it. Give it your best shot. One of the sons, Tom, became a priest. Jim played ball with the same sense of vocation.
In 1970, at 25, the Tigers offered him a job as a minor league coach in Montgomery. His playing career was finished because room had to be made for younger baseball travelers. He considered alternatives for approximately two minutes. What would he do if he returned home? He probably would go to college. He probably would major in phys ed. He probably would try to get a job coaching baseball. He was already being offered a job coaching baseball. He took the job.
"I never had plans beyond where I was," he says. "That's the truth. I never had this dream that, Well, all right, I'll make the big leagues as a manager. I always just tried to do the best job where I was. I guess there was one year in Triple A—we won the pennant at Evansville, and I started thinking I was the next John McGraw. But until then, I never had thought about the big leagues. It wasn't something I thought was possible."
He was 26 when he managed his first team, Detroit's rookie league club in Bristol, Va. The face of the first kid he released still appears to him sometimes—a good-looking kid from New Jersey. Leyland was determined to look straight into his eyes when he broke the news. He would be strong. The kid started crying and said, "If I could play baseball for anyone, I'd want to play for you." Leyland started crying along with him.
For 11 seasons, in five different towns and on all levels of the minors, Leyland learned lessons on the art of handling young men. He would appear at spring training and discuss ideas with the Tigers' old baseball men—Hoot Evers and Stubby Overmire and Fred Hatfield. He would watch Sparky Anderson, Detroit's manager, to see how he walked. Didn't Sparky look like the boss, without saying a word? How did he do that?
There aren't a lot of books about how to manage a pro baseball team because there aren't a lot of job openings in the field. Everyone has to write his own book. Longhand. "The one thing I decided to do from the beginning was to be honest," says Leyland. "That is the most important thing. Be honest. Tell a guy what you really think about him. He might not like it, but if he knows you're honest, he has to respect you. You start playing games with people and you're lost. This was another lesson from my father. He was a foreman. He supervised men at the glass factory in Toledo. I watched how he did it."
The '70s were his lone-rider years. There was a marriage in the middle that lasted just a short time. How could someone like Leyland commit to a marriage? He had to keep going, be ready to travel to the next diamond under the next set of lights at the edge of the next small town. He was consumed by the game. The fever.
He had good teams and bad teams. He saw all possible situations. Pitchers' girlfriends became pregnant, third basemen's arms suddenly went dead, and outfielders appeared who had tons of ability but only a few ounces of desire. He managed 18-year-old phenoms on the way up, and 34-year-old veterans on the way down. He stayed up late. He woke up early. He made no money. He loved it all.
"I loved every place I went," he says. "People say, 'You managed in Clinton, Iowa?' I loved it. The people would say hello to you on the street, talk about the team. Ladies would bake apple pies and bring them to the ballpark for you. Clinton, Iowa, was wonderful."
In 1981 the back-roads tour ended. Tony La Russa, then manager of the Chicago White Sox, asked Leyland to be his third base coach. At 36, Leyland was finally in the bigs. Was he impressed?