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Inside Baseball | Tim Brown / SUNDAY REPORT

He Manages to Keep Perspective

September 24, 2006|Tim Brown

BALTIMORE — A month ago, a veteran National League executive held a copy of the day's American League standings.

He poked a finger at the top of the Central Division.

"Can a manager make that much of a difference?" he asked.

Working on a half-a-game lead and about three hours of sleep Thursday morning, Jim Leyland has most of a slice of lemon cake in his mouth, a cooling cup of coffee at his right elbow and a Marlboro on the way. His long johns are tucked into his socks, which are hoisted to his knees.

"Short night," he says. "But not bad."

He won't dare admit it, but barring the absolute worst, the Detroit Tigers are going to the playoffs, maybe as the champion of the best and deepest division in baseball.

They have fallen from the astonishing pace that had them 40 games over .500 six weeks ago, and even spent a few hours in second place later Thursday night, but the Tigers are season-long legit, and maybe even postseason legit.

All of this talk makes him a little crazy, of course. The Tigers aren't in yet.

Yeah, they've got a pretty good thing going, and yeah, it reminds him some of the Pirates' revival 20 years ago, and yeah, all these players hardly anyone has heard of have reason to walk a bit taller on Woodward Avenue. "I like 'em," he admits. But that's all he'll say about that.

"We've got to win enough to get in. That's my story."

Same story, he's told, every day.

"What do you want me to do about it?" he says. "I can't get it here any sooner than it's going to happen."

A trace of playfulness lifts the corners of his eyes.

"He needs potholes, detours and jagger bushes," said Rich Donnelly, the Dodgers' third base coach and an old friend of Leyland's. "He needs that. That's when he's at his best."

Leyland is 61 years old. He has just managed his first season since guiding the Rockies to last place in 1999. The year before that, immediately after "Owner Guts Marlins I," he lost 108 games in South Florida. It has hardly been all World Series and near-misses for him.

So now the Tigers have won 93 games with seven more to play. They've ended a string of 12 consecutive losing seasons, averaging nearly 97 losses in the non-lockout years. They've put together a one-for-all roster that will not have a serious entrant in the most-valuable-player or Cy Young balloting but will have had plenty of young players grow up around catcher Ivan Rodriguez, right fielder Magglio Ordonez, starter Kenny Rogers and closer Todd Jones.

They've learned to trust the wins, dismiss the losses and forget yesterday, to just play the game, play it hard and then move along. The 10-game lead is gone, meaning they've played a month or more about how most expected them to play all season. But rather than linger on that bit of reality for too long, they beat the White Sox twice in three games in Chicago last week, leaving this season's regrets to Ozzie Guillen and Jerry Reinsdorf.

The truth is, Leyland says he didn't believe in that 10-game advantage even when it was printed in every paper.

"In actuality, I never considered we had a 10-game lead," he says. "I'll tell you what happened. We had like a four-game lead, they got cold, we picked up five games. Well then we turned around, lost five in a row, they won five in a row, so they were five games back. It wasn't like we had a 10-game lead from the beginning of the season, you know what I'm talking about? That was kind of a freak thing.

"So, I think that's overplayed a little bit. It's a fact, we did at one point have that. But at the same time, people can write that how they want, people will read it. I think a lot of people were setting us up to say, 'Here, they blew this big lead.' That's all that was. I don't fall for that."

Follow?

"He's what I call a positive worrier," Donnelly said. "Everything weighs on him. When he sends his dry cleaning out, that weighs on him. He might act like it doesn't, but I know him too well."

The players adore him. First baseman Sean Casey, a midseason pickup, said, "He definitely has been a big factor. But he wouldn't tell you that, because he's too humble a guy."

Management leans on him. General Manager Dave Dombrowski, whose job quite possibly depended on this season, said, "To me, the biggest thing is the addition of Jim Leyland."

A few minutes before the Tigers would play the Orioles, Jones, the closer, rallied his teammates from their lockers for batting practice.

"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" he shouted. "Twenty-eight more days, you can pick your own friends! With a World Series share, you can buy some friends!"

Leyland grins and finds his fungo bat.

"Oh, I'm tickled," he says. "I am tickled. First of all, we didn't get caught up in a lot of that stuff about running away with the division, because, like I said, we were barely anybody's stop in spring training to come see us. ESPN and all them, they'd maybe stop in Lakeland on the way to see the Braves.

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