Share this article

print logo

SERIES BRINGS MARLINS' LEYLAND FULL CIRCLE

It's odd how these things work out sometimes. In 1954, as a 10-year-old boy newly smitten by the game of baseball, Jim Leyland accompanied his father to Cleveland for his first major-league ballgame.

Leyland remembers it in vivid detail. Prodded by the media here Friday afternoon, the Florida Marlins manager began reciting the lineup from that mighty '54 Indians team, position by position.

"Hegan was the catcher," he said. "Rosen was at third, Avila at second . . . "

"Who won the game?" someone asked.

"Cleveland won a doubleheader that day," said Leyland, a native of Perrysburg, a small town outside Toledo. "Mike Garcia and Early Wynn pitched that day, and Larry Doby hit a home run."

You don't forget such things, not when you're a self-confessed romantic, a guy who says he cries when the flowers bloom every spring and has a speech from "Field of Dreams" hanging above his son's bed at home.

After 43 years, that's still the only thing that drives him -- to be in the game, to compete. And now, 33 years after beginning his career as a light-hitting catcher, 26 years after managing for the first time, Leyland has finally arrived at the game's ultimate showcase, the World Series.

Against the Indians.

It's been a long time coming. There are a lot of people in and around the game who know what a genuine good guy he is, and who are pulling for him as the Marlins and Indians approach the opening game tonight in Pro Player Stadium.

Leyland has long been recognized as one of the best managers in the game. He is also best remembered in moments of failure, when his gifted Pittsburgh teams of the early 1990s lost three straight times in the National League Championship Series.

The Pirates blew a lead in the ninth inning of the final game in the last one, in 1992. Leyland wept openly in the locker room afterward, so crushed was he by the knowledge that he had come so close to the World Series, only to be denied again.

Who knew whether he would get that close again? Soon after that setback, the harsh economics of baseball began tearing the Pirates apart, leaving Leyland with a shell of his former roster and no real chance of getting back to postseason.

Pittsburgh finished under .500 four years in a row. Leyland was lauded for getting the most out of those teams. It would have been easy to stay in Pittsburgh, and to get credit for being average.

But it wasn't enough. Last winter, when the Marlins came after him with a five-year, $7.5 million offer, Leyland jumped at it.

"I felt I was beating my head against the wall in Pittsburgh," he said. "To be honest, I made a lot of money in Pittsburgh. But I'm in this to compete.

"I don't know if I'm a good manager or a bad manager. But I'm a competitor. The Marlins told me they'd spend money if I came, and I knew if I came I'd have a chance."

The Marlins spent money, all right. They lavished $89 million on the likes of Bobby Bonilla, Alex Fernandez and Moises Alou. In spring training, Leyland said he fully expected to win.

What else could he say? If he was genius with those low-budget teams in Pittsburgh, people would expect no less than a playoff team. He welcomed the pressure. He was 52. He needed the challenge of elevated expectations.

"I'm not apologizing for anything," he said. "I wanted to get that feeling back between 7:30 and 10, the feeling you need to have."

That's one of his pet phrases -- "7:30 to 10 o'clock." It's the fragment of the day he lives for every summer, when a baseball man can lose himself in the challenge of the game itself.

Not surprisingly, he was up to the test this year. Granted, the Marlins had talent, but the sporting landscape is littered with managers who had huge payrolls and couldn't win. His team played smart and it got better as the year went on.

Big payroll or not, there's no way they should have beaten the Braves in the NLCS. Leyland lost his No. 2 pitcher, Alex Fernandez. His top RBI man, Alou, missed time with an injured wrist. His top pitcher, Kevin Brown, had two starts pushed back because of sickness.

They hit .199 against Atlanta. They set a record for fewest total bases in a six-game championship series. And still, they won.

Now, Leyland becomes this year's Joe Torre -- the sentimental favorite who spent three decades in baseball and finally got to his first World Series. You know, the guy with the aura of destiny about him.

It is hard not to root for him. He is utterly human. Most coaches nowadays are avowed health nuts. Leyland is a chain smoker who has tried time and again to quit, to no avail. After home games, he sits in a rocking chair in his office, puffing Marlboros and talking about how lucky he is to have his job.

He really believes that. He spent 18 years in the minor leagues. What's not to appreciate? Sure, he cried in '92 after the Braves series. But he wasn't devastated. It was a game. You move on.

You want to talk devastated? His first child was stillborn. His father, who worked for 48 years in a Toledo glass factory, died in 1989, without getting a chance to see his greatest successes.

"I'd give every dime I ever made if my dad could just see me run out to that first-base line Saturday," Leyland said. "I'd trade everything for that.

"It's amazing, I guess. I don't know how you figure all this stuff out. To think I saw my first game in Cleveland, and I'm going back there to manage in a World Series. I don't know how that stuff all works out.

"But I guess there is something to all that stuff up there," he said, with a nod toward the heavens.

There are no comments - be the first to comment