The voice is low. A smokers voice. Jim Leyland doesn't smoke cigarettes any more, but for most of his 45 years he was a two-pack man, and his words arrive with a rough edge that makes you think about late nights, jukebox music and roadhouse conversation. He talks, and a freight train seems to disappear into the distance.
"I'd come home, I'd be broke again," he says. "I'd have to borrow money. My older brother, Bill, he'd help me out. A lot of people would help me out. I'd work. I worked every winter. I worked in the post office. I worked in the glass company. I worked construction. I drove a truck."
Truck stops come to mind. A cigarette. A cup of coffee. Leyland doesn't drink coffee anymore, but he used to drink about a barrel a day. You can see him with the cigarette and the coffee. A Styrofoam cup. A Formica counter. A waitress wanting to know whether he would like the cherry pie for dessert.
"I'd be home for about two months every year," he says. "I'd stay in my old room and help out my mom and dad. I'd take 'em to the store. Run errands. My brothers and sisters helped the rest of the year. Then it would be my time."
In his eyes there is the sadness of a lone rider. Wasn't that what he was—a lone rider? He was one of those American tumbleweeds, moving from small town to small town, from Rocky Mount, N.C., to Montgomery, Ala., to Lakeland, Fla., to Clinton, Iowa, to Evansville, Ind. His roots were no deeper than the tread on the tires of his latest used car. No entanglements. The idea that he would live in a frame house with a white picket fence was as foreign to him as the idea that someday he might become the king of England.
"I never wanted anything else but baseball," he says. "It was in the blood. I had to be free. I had to be ready to move. If all you've got is your car and your pitching machine, you can throw the pitching machine in the back seat and be heading south in a minute."
He laughs. The buzz that surrounds him now—as the team he manages, the Pittsburgh Pirates, clings to first place in the National League East—is far removed from what he went through in those other years. How long was he in the minors before he put on his first major league uniform? Eighteen years. How many bus rides did he take? How many kids did he counsel on the art and science of swinging at a moving baseball? How many cups of coffee did he drink?
He lived the entire season in a hotel. He would put everything he owned into a suitcase and check out at the start of each road trip. Then he would check back in when the team returned. One year his salary was $400 per month.
First place? The Pittsburgh Pirates? The National League? Jim Leyland? The ships that he sailed for the longest time were on a different, faraway baseball sea. "I didn't own anything," he says. "When I came to Pittsburgh, I'd never owned a house. A house? I'd never owned furniture. I didn't even own a lamp."
He now owns a house. He owns a lamp. He bought a condo before he bought the house. He didn't know what to do about the furniture. He asked a young woman in the Pirate promotions department, Katie O'Connor, to come to the store with him. She did. That was back in 1986. A year later they were married. The tumbleweed rolls no more.