How Jim Leyland came to manage the Detroit Tigers — and how he’s done it so well
By John Baldoni,
This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on the best managers in baseball today.
Without a doubt the best manager in baseball these days is Jim Leyland, manager of the Detroit Tigers.
But I am biased.
The Tigers are my favorite team and Jim hails from my hometown of Perrysburg, Ohio. Leyland was an all-around athlete at Perrysburg High School. He comes from a big Irish Catholic family; his older brother is a priest, his sister who worked for my father was a nurse, and his youngest brother was a boyhood friend of mine.
I can still recall the news of Jim’s signing with the Tigers. We had all thought Jim would be catching for the Tigers one day. But of course it took him 43 years to reach the Tigers—and not as a catcher but as a manager. And it is over those 40-plus years that you come to an understanding of why Leyland is such an extraordinary talent.
Before coming to the Tigers he was manager of the year at every level in the minors, and he managed the Pirates to division titles and the Marlins to a World Series title. And in his first year as manager of the Tigers in 2006, he guided them to the World Series.
Note the term manager. In baseball, we don’t have coaches as we do in other sports. Nope. We have managers. Likely it has to do with the process behind the game: the art and science of putting players into positions where they can succeed in the field and at the plate. We call that management.
And that's where few are better than Jim Leyland. All you have to know about him is that he is first and foremost a people person. You wouldn’t know it from the way he bites off comments to the beat writers, or the way he sometimes yells at umpires. But scratch the surface, and Jim’s a people guy.
That he learned from his father, for whom he is named. James Leyland, Sr., was a foreman for Libby Owens Ford, then the largest glassmaker in the world. He was the kind of supervisor men wanted to work for – approachable and accessible, but no-nonsense when it came to getting the work done. That’s Jim to a tee.
Like his dad, Jim knows his business. He has a baseball mind. He plays the diamond like a chess master. His prowess was on full display late in the season and most definitely in the first round of the playoffs against the Yankees. With his masterful substitutions for pitchers and insertion of defensive players, he put the Tigers in a position to win.
Strategically and tactically Jim’s a whiz, but that’s not his true gift. His forte is what he gets out of his players. According to a recent poll of major league players, Jim was voted among the managers players most want to play for. Case in point: Bobby Bonds, the home-run slugger with a perpetual foul demeanor whom Jim managed at Pittsburgh in the early ‘80s, liked to play for him. The respect these two have for one another remains to this day.
The reason may be that Jim appreciates their talents. Having been a minor league player, he knows what it's like to play the game but also respects what it takes to play the game at the highest level possible. That’s something he was never able to do; his playing career stopped at Single A.
Superstars love to play for Jim because they know he will put them into positions where they strut their stuff. Role players seem to have a special place in the Leyland game plan. He is forever juggling the lineups to get them playing time, whether it is to give a star a chance to sit or fill a special need. There are bench players on the Tigers, but they all play. That keeps the entire team focused and, yes, motivated.
Motivation is essential in baseball. Sure, they are well paid. But think about this: From mid-February to early October or later, major league players play 162 games, excluding spring training and the post-season. In other words baseball is—albeit well paid—a job.
How Leyland keeps the team focused is critical. His singular rule is that he expects every player to come to the ballpark ready and willing to play. Simple, yes, but easy to ignore if it is early April in Detroit and the thermometer reads 39 degrees. Or if it is triple-digit hot in Texas in August. And that’s setting aside the many red-eye flights ballplayers make while crisscrossing the continent, sometimes without an off-day—as well as the myriad nicks, knocks and bruises even “healthy” players receive. No matter. If you play for Leyland, you take to the field prepared.
Baseball is not a rah-rah sport. Like life, it simply goes on. The gift, then, that Leyland gives of himself is to be a champion for his players. When the team is playing well, he leaves them alone. But when the team is losing—or when it loses, as we’ve just seen, after coming so close to making the World Series—he’s the first one there to pick them up, player by player, with a word of encouragement here or a pat on the back there.
And that may be Leyland at his best, watching over and watching out for his players.
John Baldoni is a leadership consultant, coach and author. His newest book, Lead With Purpose, Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself , comes out October 2011.