In defense of Jim Leyland

3 years ago I was kicking around the idea of doing a sports blog.  Jim Leyland, the manager of the Detroit Tigers had just retired.  Most Tigers fans that I talked to at the time thought it was a wonderful idea that good ol’ Smokey Jim was finally finding his way out the door.   I thought it was a little unfair, considering all the success the Tigers had while he was manager.  I wrote this back in February 2014, just before spring training kicked off with the Tigers new manager, Brad Ausmus.  This piece is a little dated, i.e., the Phil Coke references, but I think it holds up pretty well.  In some parts of it I appear to be pretty full of myself, kind of smarmy and sarcastic, but my wife and my friends might just consider that my true personality coming through.

I want this blog to be about stuff that interests me and not just me bitching about having cancer.  Sports, politics, religion, music, movies, pop culture are all things I will take a swing at.  Eventually I hope to figure out how to put these things in their own categories.  That way if you are interested in what I have to say about the Lions and NOT about the bathroom habits of a middle aged man with prostate cancer, you can choose. Although, I’m not sure which is more exciting.  

From February 2014.  Peace.

652-966.

If those numbers were a batting average, those numbers would be awesome. A .403 average. Ted Williams kind of numbers. But, alas, those numbers are not from some kid trying to become the next Splendid Splinter. Those numbers are the Detroit Tigers wins and losses in the ten season span from 1996-2005.

Look at those numbers again.

652- 966. A .403 winning percentage. Average season record: 65-97.

Wow.

Those ten seasons are the years between Sparky Anderson and Jim Leyland. For Tiger fans, those years are a dry, dusty desert of amazing incompetence, year after year of being out of the pennant race by June, and sometimes earlier. Those ten years represent the worst ten year span in Detroit Tigers history, a franchise that dates back to 1901. Only 2 seasons in that span, 1997 and 2000, was there any hope of even approaching the .500 mark. Those 2 seasons were seen as stepping stones, a record of 79-83, a glimmer of hope, an oasis on the horizon, that things were going to get better. But even those 2 seasons were followed by a disaster, the next seasons were awful, managers were fired, players were released and a new start was declared. But the new start never worked.

Here’s another number for you. 5.

That would be the number of different Tiger managers over that 10 season span. Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish, Phil Garner, Luis Pujols, Alan Trammell. Luis Pujols? Yes, Luis Pujols. Forgot about him, didn’t you. An argument could be made that more managers should have been used, that people should have been fired sooner. Alan Trammell, for instance, had a record of 186-300. A staggering 114 games below the .500 mark. A .383 winning percentage. If there was a Mendoza line for managers, I am thinking .400 would be about right. Trammell was safely under that. He guided the 2003 team to a record of 43-119, just one game from tying the 1962 New York Mets for modern day futility. And they had to win 5 of their last 6 to avoid equaling that infamous number of 120 losses.

Look, I love Tram. He was the shortstop for some of my favorite Tiger teams of all time. Tram and Lou Whitaker were probably one of the best double play combinations in baseball history, both in the field and at the bat. He should have won the MVP in 1987. He was amazing in the 1984 World Series. My family met Trammell during the 2005 season during picture day at Comerica. He was awesome. Talked to my 2 boys about baseball and what position they played. Just a sweetheart of a guy. But as a manager? No. He was clearly in over his head. I wanted him to succeed so badly. But it didn’t happen.

Looking back at that decade of awfulness I realize that the GM for the Tigers during most of those years was Randy Smith and a lot of the blame falls on him. Randy Smith in the ’90s was to the Tigers what Matt Millen was in the 2000s for the Lions. Bad draft picks, bad trades, bad free agent signings, bad karma, really, really bad baseball teams. The list of forgettable players that came through the Tiger clubhouse during his time is very long. I remember a pitcher he picked up from the Astros named Chris Holt. He was a starter for the team in the 2001 season. The fans were told that he was an “innings eater.” I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term “innings eater” I immediately think, “This guy sucks.” Turns out he ate innings at rate of about 3 1/3. He went 7-9 that season, which isn’t bad for a team that lost 95 games. But it could have been worse. His ERA was a brutal 5.77. And his WHIP was 1.678!! Holy crap!! Those are Phil Coke numbers. And the sad part of all that? He wasn’t even the worst starter on the team that year!! The immortal Dave Mlicki, who had 15 starts, had a robust 7.33 ERA and an absolutely awful 1.963 WHIP. He averaged almost 2 baserunners an inning!! And Garner trotted him out there 15 times!

I am recounting all this badness to make a point about the current state of my favorite baseball team. As much as we fans want to bitch and moan about falling short in the ALCS, or losing the last 2 World Series the Tigers were in, all you have to do is look back just a few years ago to realize we have been really blessed over the past 8 years with the old skip, smokey Jim Leyland. I know he would drive you crazy with the guys he rested, or the in game strategy, or the fact that Coke was ever in a game at all last year, but you really can’t argue with his results.

700-597
.540 percentage
4 playoff appearances
3 AL Central division titles.
2 AL championships
2 World Series appearances.

He was way too loyal to players that were struggling, like Prince Fielder last year, and he could be a pretty grumpy guy in the clubhouse, but his players loved him and they played hard for him. A lot of things have been written about Leyland over the years, and I won’t bore you with a lot of details on how I felt about his managing style. But look at his numbers again. And now look at the numbers at the beginning of this story. Makes you think the crusty old guy wasn’t so bad after all.

And now the Detroit Tigers start the 2014 season with their first new manager in 8 years. Brad Ausmus. He should be familiar to most Tiger fans. He was the Tigers catcher during some of those 10 years of awfulness before Jim Leyland arrived. And Randy Smith traded for him twice. And Randy Smith thinks he will be a great big league manager.

Uh-oh.

652-966.

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