Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jim Leyland retires from baseball

If there was a Mt. Rushmore for important Pirates figures during the franchise's long and illustrious history, one could make a strong case for Jim Leyland, who managed the club from 1986-1996.

Leyland announced his retirement from baseball on Monday, and he left behind a legacy that included 1700 victories,  several postseason appearances, three World Series appearances, and a World Series victory in 1997 while managing the Florida Marlins.

As a Pirates fan, the legacy he left behind in Pittsburgh is the one I'd like to write about today.

Leyland was an unknown who coached under Tony LaRussa with the Chicago White Sox before being hired for the job in Pittsburgh.

Leyland spent 13 seasons in the minors and never even had a cup of coffee in the big leagues as a player, but his true calling was as a big league manager.

He took over a Pirates franchise that had just gone through the notorious baseball drug trials, had threatened to move to another city, had just gone through a high profile ownership change, and maybe more importantly, from a budding new manager's perspective, had just finished in last place the previous two seasons.

Long-gone were the glory days of the 70s, complete with a system from the majors to the minors that was stacked with talent, and in their place was an era where the Pirates were a laughing-stock, who lost over 100 games in 1985 and drew just 700,000 fans to old Three Rivers Stadium.

The talented players were few and far between, but thankfully, Syd Thrift, the Pirates gm from 1985-1988, and the man who actually hired Leyland, was fairly adept at player procurement and player development and soon would re-stock the organization with much-needed talent.

The Pirates would finish in last place again in 1986, but players such as future home run king Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and John Smiley were on the roster. And in 1987, just before the start of the season, Thrift traded the team's most popular player, catcher Tony Pena, to the Cardinals in exchange for outfielder Andy Van Slyke, catcher Mike Lavalliere and pitcher Mike Dunne. Van Slyke and Lavalliere would cement a core group of players that would resurrect the franchise and restore its once proud heritage.

Leyland was able to mold these players, like most athletes, diverse and often egotistical, into a cohesive unit.

In 1988, after three straight last place finishes and a tie for fourth place the year before, the Pirates actually clinched second place in the National League East, and Leyland cried like a baby. Some might laugh at such a response, but Leyland knew where the franchise had been and how close it had been to leaving town.

Two years later, in September of 1990, there were more tears of joy as the Pirates won their first division title in 11 seasons.

There would be two more division titles in ensuing seasons, along with those tears from Leyland, who admittedly, has always worn his emotions on his sleeves.

Whether he was crying about a watershed victory or chewing a player out for not performing well, there were no secrets about how Leyland was feeling.

In some specials I watched about the early 90s Pirates teams, Leyland's former players gushed over his communication skills. Bob Walk, a Pirates starting pitcher during the glory years of the early 90s and a current broadcaster for the team, said that regardless of Leyland's relationship with a player, that player always knew where he stood. I'm sure any athlete on the planet could appreciate that. Heck, anyone who has ever had a boss will tell you that, more than anything, they want to know where they stand.

A lot of people in Pittsburgh praise Leyland for a confrontation he had with Bonds in spring training of 1991, but Leyland has gone on record as saying he doesn't want that to be his legacy as manager of the Pirates.

According to Leyland, he had many disagreements with players over the years, and the one he had with Bonds just happened to be out in the open.

Speaking of Bonds, he certainly had a reputation as being quite difficult all throughout his major league career. However, he always showed great respect and admiration for Leyland, and if that doesn't speak volumes for the man, I don't know what does.

Former Pirates Jay Bell and Gary Redus have said that Leyland's ability to communicate and get the most out of his reserve players and his bullpen may have been his greatest attribute.

Finally, I mentioned Leyland's emotional side and how he would cry after important victories. During that special about the early 90s Pirates teams, Leyland, who at that point was managing the Tigers and 15 years removed from his days in Pittsburgh, got emotional when discussing things such as the 1990 division title and the depressing Game 7 loss in the 1992 NLCS.

Forget great manager. Jim Leyland is a great man.

Thanks for everything, Skipper.

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