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'Genius of Jim': The stories behind Jim Leyland's incredible legacy

'Genius of Jim': The stories behind Jim Leyland's incredible legacy

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PITTSBURGH — It was the calm after the storm, the hours that followed Jim Leyland cussing out Barry Bonds during a spring training workout more than 30 years ago. Inside the Bradenton, Fla., home they shared, Leyland and Rich Donnelly — a Pirates assistant coach at the time — couldn't escape what happened.

With Donnelly on the floor and Leyland smoking on the couch, they watched the video on ESPN, its expletives censored and contents dissected. During one commercial break, Leyland asked Donnelly what he thought the Pirates should do.

"I said to Jim, 'Get rid of him. He disrespected Bill Virdon. We have a good team. He's divisive. Get rid of him,' " Donnelly recalled during a lengthy interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month.

A few minutes passed. Leyland asked again. Same answer. Finally, Donnelly turned it around and wanted to know whether Leyland preferred to keep Bonds or pursue a trade. Leyland looked Donnelly right in the eye before taking one last drag on his cigarette.

"He goes, 'You're damn right I want him,' " Donnelly recalled. "He knew that even though all that happened, we needed [Bonds] to win. He knew he had the best player in baseball. That's the genius of Jim."

A former minor league catcher, Leyland managed 3,499 MLB games, including 1,716 with the Pirates. He later won a World Series championship with the Marlins in 1997 and two pennants in Detroit. Yet the Bonds blowup, right or wrong, receives the most attention.

It's almost a shame because there's so much more to Leyland's incredible legacy, a treasure trove of hilarious and impactful stories.

While achieving cult-hero status in Pittsburgh and around MLB, Leyland left an indelible mark on his players, who adored his passion, relatability and knowledge of the game. Few loved playing for Leyland more than Bonds, who rarely talks but agreed to an interview for this story and spoke glowingly of his former manager for more than 35 minutes.

"Best I ever had," Bonds said. "We have a great relationship to this day. He just had this vibe that you respected. He simplified things and acted in a way you could understand. I'm almost grateful he cussed me out because it helped us grow so close that nothing could ever separate us."

Leyland did things in a way that was uniquely him — the expletive-filled rants, his mad-scientist way of managing a game, the smoking habit, the respect he commanded and how he essentially functioned as "an orchestra leader," to borrow Donnelly's descriptor, extracting the best from each of his players, as well as the group, and steering the ship toward greatness.

Said John Wehner: "You wanted to go out there and play your ass off for him."

Leyland was old school but thought about the game in a modern way. He had a gruff exterior and combustible temper, yet he'd sprint into oncoming traffic for his players. The sum total was something that will never be replicated, and it's the picture of a man probably best painted with stories, a favorite pastime for those who knew Leyland best.

The game manager

Donnelly spent 14 seasons working under Leyland with three different organizations and routinely roomed with him on the road. It didn't take long for habits to form. Donnelly woke up when he smelled smoke in the other bedroom of their suite and ordered a pot of coffee for them to share.

Donnelly: "On his night stand, there would be 20 lineups written out. He'd also have a mound of ashes about 6 inches high. For every lineup, he probably smoked two heaters."

The ashes, of course, told a story. Before every game Leyland managed, he'd craft his lineup with the care of a carpenter, leveraging players' strengths and anticipating matchups. In his head, Leyland had a sixth sense for how the game would flow.

Donnelly: "He'd say something like, 'I'm gonna save Mike Diaz for John Franco, then use him in the ninth inning.' The next night, a whole bunch of changes, and sure enough, there was [Diaz] ready for Franco."

Mike LaValliere: "He always gave us the best chance to win. It was nice knowing it would be like that every game."

Donnelly, who was Pittsburgh's bullpen coach before taking over at third base in 1992, remembered one night at Shea Stadium when Leyland had Bill Landrum and Bob Kipper warming ... then told Donnelly to have Bob Patterson start throwing, as well.

Donnelly: "I said, 'Skip, we only have two mounds down here.' He said, 'I don't give a [crap]. Have one of 'em throw sideways.' He wanted Davey Johnson to look down at that bullpen and not know what we were gonna do."

It was similar to how Leyland handled pinch-hitters. Donnelly said it wasn't uncommon for Leyland to have a placeholder on deck and tell Dave Clark to get loose somewhere out of sight, purposefully trying to deke his counterpart.

Leyland also used analytics before they became cool, which can be demonstrated with story from Game 2 of the 2006 ALCS against Oakland.

Before the series, Leyland told Alexis Gomez (who started just 34 games that season) that he'd be playing and did it with a joke — by saying that Gomez hit more home runs at 5 p.m. than anybody else on the Tigers.

Batting practice power aside, Leyland wanted Gomez because Esteban Loaiza was pitching, and Leyland knew Loaiza's sinker would be perfect for Gomez and his ability to hit the low strike.

Don Kelly: "Typical Leyland. I guarantee you Gomez laughed his ass off and didn't think about the stress of playing. He just knew Jim believed in him."

Gomez contributed two hits, including a two-run homer, and had four RBIs during the second game of Detroit's series sweep.

Kelly: "Everything Jim did, there was a reason for it."

'Skip was cool'

Leyland could manage a game with the best, but he also loved to laugh, even if it was sometimes at his expense.

Gary Redus once stuffed a pair of shoes in a St. Louis bathroom stall, preying on Leyland's between-innings habit. After two unsuccessful trips, Bob Walk said Leyland lost it.

Walk: "We're laughing. We know what's going on, and he says, 'I don't know who the [expletive] is in there. But if they're sick, tell 'em to go to the [expletive] clubhouse and get the [expletive] out of that bathroom.' "

Assistant athletic trainer Dave Tumbas then pulled the shoes from the stall and showed them to Leyland.

Walk (quoting Leyland): "'OK, you [guys]. You got me.' ... Everybody had a good laugh about that."

The day Sean Casey was traded from Pittsburgh to Detroit, Leyland got him while going over signs with third-base coach Gene Lamont.

Casey: "He tells me, 'If you get on first with a walk or a hit, don't look over at Geno. Look in the dugout. If I come to the top step and we lock eyes, stay with me. And if I jump up and never come back down, you steal.'

"I'm so locked in that I think he's serious, but it was genius. I was nervous as can be and here's Leyland dropping a joke on me. It made me feel like a part of the team right away."

Some of the jokes weren't as light-hearted. In 1993, Walk's final year as a Pirate, he said Leyland called him into his office to tell him he had been traded.

Walk: "We're crying and hugging. I finally get it together and ask, 'So where am I going, skip?' He gives a little chuckle and says, 'Who the hell do you think would want you?' "

Leyland also tried to talk Walk out of retirement once he became a broadcaster. For weeks, Leyland complained about a thin pitching staff and said he needed help. Walk resisted because he thought Leyland was messing with him.

Finally, Walk began to entertain the idea.

Walk: "He starts laughing and says, 'Who the hell could you get out?' He just needed to get me to bite."

This last one wasn't a prank, but it might be the best example why players adored Leyland.

After a game against the Astros, Leyland and Donnelly returned to their Houston hotel room on the 23rd floor. Salty over a lousy round of golf that morning, Leyland asked to have his clubs delivered.

Standing in front of the balcony with the windows open, Leyland drove about a dozen golf balls into an empty field. At midnight, no less. Leyland was telling Andy Van Slyke about it the next day when the notoriously goofy center fielder called his bluff.

So Leyland invited Van Slyke up to see. Not only that, he convinced Van Slyke to run down and essentially shag golf balls when his supply started to dwindle.

Donnelly: "As soon as Jim would swing, I'd yell, 'Fore!' That way Andy would have some idea that the ball was coming."

The story doesn't end there, either.

Donnelly: "After about the 30th swing, Jim yells, 'Oh, [shoot]!' His driver wore a hole in the rug. So he went in the bathroom, grabbed a little piece of carpet and pulled it over the top, like no one would notice."

Another time, Donnelly said Leyland hit a ball off the railing. It went up in the air, then bounced on top of a limousine parked outside of the hotel for a wedding.

Bonds: "Skip was cool, man."

Gene Lamont, another longtime coaching confidant: "He had this way about him that brought people closer."

The psychology of Leyland

It was Game 7 of the 1997 World Series, and Leyland was out of words. For reasons Donnelly still doesn't know, Leyland delivered a speech before all 15 of the Florida Marlins' postseason games to that point.

But as Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou, Kevin Brown and others gathered in their Pro Player Stadium clubhouse, Leyland turned to another one of his good pals, Tommy Sandt, for help.

"I remember Tommy saying, 'Just tell 'em what's in your heart,' " Donnelly recalled. "I was with Jim his entire career, and he didn't do this. He didn't believe in it. But he was so determined to will that team to win.

"So he gets up and says, 'Boys, I don't know what to say, but I do know one thing. When we come back through these clubhouse doors, you're gonna be world champions.' "

The Marlins, of course, emerged victorious, scoring the final run of a 3-2 win when Edgar Renteria's single up the middle in the 11th inning ticked off Charles Nagy's glove. A bespectacled Leyland pointed into the stands and screamed. He bear-hugged Bobby Bonilla. It was undoubtedly one of the crowning achievements of his career.

But as raucous — and deserved — as that celebration might've been, Walk remembered the spring of '86, when Leyland broke the news that he had made the team.

Walk: "As he walks away, he turned to me and said, 'But I really want a left-hander. So you better pitch well right off the bat.' That was my first view into the kind of honesty you could expect from Jim."

The honesty was appreciated, but it was also part of Leyland's larger plan, where he knew exactly what he needed to do to relate to players.

Donnelly: "[Van Slyke] loved shagging golf balls with Leyland. After that, Andy would do anything for Jim. He's thinking, 'Hey, our manager is just like me. He's a jackass.' He got through to him. ... Did he treat Bonds differently? Yeah. If Bonds loafed, did he get on him? Hell no. He was different. He's a freak of nature. If Gary Varsho jogged to first, you bet your ass he'd get on him. That's how he handled players. It's like he had 28 different personalities."

Leyland learned about the NBA as a way to build a relationship with Sheffield. He also willingly gave up his No. 10, saying "there's only one Number 10 in South Florida, and that's Gary Sheffield." He did the same for LaValliere, although "Spanky" declined.

One of the more memorable Marlins speeches involved a Muhammad Ali reference about the greatest boxer of all time still losing rounds from time-to-time, but the funniest story about Leyland being relatable came from Casey, who was slumping badly in April 2007.

Casey: "I remember thinking, 'That's it. I'm being too passive. I'm going out tomorrow, first-pitch hacking. Aggressive. Next day I'm playing whiffle ball with my kids and hitting bombs off them. Batting practice, I'm launching balls."

But 15 minutes before first pitch, everything changed. Leyland told Casey to take pitches. Casey caved. Another hitless game, more strikeouts.

Casey: "He comes up to me and says, 'If you ever take my advice on hitting again, I'm sending your ass to Class AA. I don't know what the [expletive] I'm talking about. I was 0-for-August one time as a player.' But that was the genius of Jim. He knew the game was hard. He expected a lot out of you, but he also loved you."

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