LAKELAND, Fla. — It is crazy to think Jim Leyland has been doing this for 50 years.
To do anything for 50 years is a little mind-boggling when you consider the average human male born in America only lives for about 25.35 years longer than that. All you really get in life is time and Leyland has spent essentially two-thirds of his allotted amount reporting to Spring Training every February to be involved, in one way or the other, with the game of baseball.
He’s been a player, a bench coach, a base coach, a scout and, more recently, a manager. He’s been in World Series and All-Star games and pennant races. He’s been on busses, trains and planes, eaten at every greasy spoon on highways across the United States and stayed up late smoking in more threadbare hotels than he could possibly count. Of course, he’s taken to this game; but it’s more a case of the game having taken him.
He’s a manager’s manager and if it was a fraternity, he’d be president. And when the other frat brothers are in town they all stop by to pay their respects. So there he was, hitting grounders with his trusty fungo bat here in Lakeland on Saturday morning for the seventeen-millionth time or whatever it’s been, when Leyland decided it was time for a smoke. He walked over to a folding chair near the Tigers dugout, fished a pack of Marlboro Red’s from his pocket and lit up, crossing one leg over the other as he watched batting practice in the sun. That’s when new-old Blue Jays manager John Gibbons strolled by to say hello.
"How you doin’, Gibby," Leyland said, getting up to shake hands. The two go back to when Leyland took over the Tigers in 2006 while Gibbons was in his first stint as Blue Jays manager. "You know, Jimmy, I’m pretty good," Gibbons replied in that deep Texas drawl. "Yeah," Leyland said, chin rising. "I know you are."
A simple exchange, but it says an awful lot about baseball managers (aside from the fact all their names end up being suffixed with an ‘ey’). The emphasis on the ‘know’ was there to suggest that, yeah, you should be doing well with the lineup card you’re going to be filling out every day. And Leyland does know because he’s got a pretty talented roster himself, what with two of the game’s premier power hitters batting back-to-back and Justin Verlander pitching every five days. These are two of the most fortunate managers in the majors when it comes to positional resources.
And they know that.
Managers bond with each other over these things. It’s a rare field when there are only 29 other people in the world who do what you do and understand what it’s like. Leyland has been around long enough to know that a lot of the time his fate is out of his hands.
Ultimately, it will be the players on the field that decide his win-loss record and whether he gets to the playoffs, which is what we most often evaluate managers on. Managers aren’t allowed to take the at-bats, they don’t throw the pitches, they are prohibited from fielding the ball. They can just put the best, healthiest guys they have in a position to do those things and hope they don’t fail. Aside from that, they just have to be around.
Basically, they have to be a presence. It’s an art that Leyland and Gibbons — as you will learn if you spend any time around them — have both mastered. They have to be one of the first guys there in the morning and one of the last to leave and people have to see that they’re there, always watching and thinking. But you also have to feel that they’re there, setting a tone and embodying a culture that, they hope, seeps through the team. It is surreptitiously cerebral.
The vibe both Leyland and Gibbons give off is staying a step back of things. Outside of in-game decision-making, they mostly try not to do too much. It’s especially evident during the early days of Spring Training. Leyland seldom calls for steals or bunts because he wants his players to get their swings in. Gibbons tries to just watch the pitchers and see how their pitches are moving. But even during the season, these managers never really want it to be about them.
"It’s managing what you have. What your team is made up of and what their strengths are," Gibbons says during his first of 195 scheduled pre-game media scrums this year. "You just go with it. I let them do their thing."
But it is so often about them, whether they want it to be or not. They have to take the heat when the team isn’t performing, they have to go out and argue when an umpire’s call is seemingly unjust, they have to explain to the media and the fans why, sometimes, humans fail. They are like a carpenter who doesn’t get to buy his own tools; if he doesn’t have a sharp enough saw and a sturdy enough hammer, the bookcase might fall apart. But you aren’t allowed to blame the hammer.
So as they sat there in the sun talking for 20 minutes — Gibbons fiddling with a bat and spitting large gobs of chewing tobacco at his feet, Leyland leaning back behind dark sunglasses — they chatted about the things they can control, like their rosters and how they were bringing their pitchers along. They talked about how they set their rotations and Gibbons facetiously pressed Leyland about starting his entire major league lineup in the first game of Spring Training. Leyland, who has spent 22 of his 50 years in the game as a manager, took a drag of his cigarette and told him he wanted to welcome him back.
Back into the fraternity.