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2/13/2013 9:42 P.M. ET

Fifty Spring Trainings later, Leyland recalls first

LAKELAND, Fla. -- As much as the wrinkled face and silver hair have become associated with the Tigers, it's difficult to imagine a young, thick-haired Jim Leyland rolling into town as a fresh-faced catcher out of Perrysburg High School looking forward to a career in baseball as a player.

To Leyland, the memories are as vivid as the emotions. That first glimpse into Tigers Spring Training in 1964 is a sight he'll never forget.

"I was on a double-decker bus, came down through the south," Leyland said. "We came up Memorial Boulevard, and the Tigers were practicing at Henley Field, and I was up high enough on that double-decker bus that I could see over there. I could see them working out. I knew that was the big club.

"Then I got to the bus station and I got out to Tigertown and I walked into those old barracks, and buddy, it was a rude awakening -- old, wooden shacks, no windows. You had no privacy. You looked right in everybody's room. You had three or four beds in the room. In my case, it was three. You had old tin lockers.

"And I walked in there, and there were two guys in there. One was an All-American catcher from Southern Cal, and one of them was an all-state from Missouri. And I'm thinking to myself, 'I'm all-Northern Lakes League from Perrysburg, Ohio. This doesn't look too good.'"

With that, Leyland's first Spring Training was a reality check. On Tuesday, when Leyland took the field with a white-paneled batting-practice cap and a clean white jersey, his 50th Spring Training was under way.

He lives in Pittsburgh during the offseason, and he never thought about staying south for the winter until he rented a home along the coast near Sarasota, Fla., this past fall. Yet, he has spent years' worth of springs in Florida, most of it in Lakeland.

In a city that boasts the longest-running Spring Training relationship with a Major League team, it's probably fitting.

Reminders of history are everywhere here. The row of hangars at the back end of Tigertown date back to the days when the complex served as a training area for World War II pilots, which is where the barracks came from. The names on the practice fields and the nearby streets don't simply honor greats who donned the Old English D, they remember greats who played here.

Leyland doesn't have a field or a street named after him. At this point, his lasting marker is the tear in Ty Cobb's portrait that hangs in the manager's office at Joker Marchant Stadium. Leyland gets to look at it every day and remember throwing his cleats at the wall after a tough loss managing the Class A team. The Georgia Peach was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Leyland remembers much more about this place, starting when he stepped off that bus.

"I didn't know what to expect," Leyland said. "Yeah, to be honest with you, when I first came down, I thought I was the next Yogi Berra. Then you see reality, and it sets in, and you find out that's not exactly the way it is."

He thought it was just a matter of time before he joined Al Kaline and Willie Horton on the big league fields.

"The only time I got to Major League camp was to throw batting practice for them or something," he said. "But I did play in a couple 'B' games."

One of his other catchers in that first camp was Roy Renfro, who had bounced around a couple of other organizations. Renfro ended up playing 33 games at Class A Lakeland that year. Another catcher, Joe Cernich, was four months older than Leyland. He was headed to Class A Jamestown.

Leyland started out in the Cocoa Rookie League, then took over for Renfro at Lakeland. But he never did hit.

"I was a lettuce-legger for quite a few years," Leyland recalled. "Lettuce-leggers were the guys that wore the green socks. They were usually not too good.

"In those days, you differentiated your team by the socks you wore. Now all the kids wear the same socks, but that's not the way it was. You had some blue with orange stripes. You had some plain blue. You had some orange, and green. If you were on that green-sock team, you knew you weren't a prospect."

Some of his old teammates made it. Tom Timmermann spent nearly a decade in the Tigers system before finally making the team in 1969. John Hiller, too, was in those camps.

Leyland never broke camp higher than Double-A. He still considers those springs some of the happiest times of his life.

"The Minor Leagues were just as much fun as the Major Leagues," Leyland said. "Obviously, the pay wasn't good. I got $125 for two weeks. You got a dollar and a quarter meal money. Pretty good. I bought a shirt and a pair of pants every payday. I thought I was rich.

"Things were different, too. You could get a whole meal at the cafeteria for a buck and a quarter or something."

The big league dreams as a player died long before his playing career did. They were revived when he made a name as an up-and-coming manager in the farm system in the 1970s, managing many of the prospects who became key parts of the 1984 world champions.

Not until Leyland landed on Tony La Russa's coaching staff with the 1982 White Sox did he finally stick in a Major League camp. Four years later, he was running his own camp, having taken over as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

His decade at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., included one of the most memorable Spring Training moments in modern history when his argument with Barry Bonds was caught on camera. He told the reigning National League MVP to go home if he didn't want to be there, and he said it bluntly.

It was Leyland's camp, and he wanted that clear. It took 15 more years and a few more job changes, but when he made that flight from Pittsburgh in 2006, he could finally say the same about Tigers camp.

He has whittled a half-century of experience into a camp script, getting players in and out with as little standing around as possible. They work hard, he likes to say, but they work smart. He's far more likely to joke around with players, trying hard to hit a ground ball past Justin Verlander during pitchers fielding practice, than he is to chew somebody out.

"When you think about it, you're managing the best players in the world and managing against the best players in the world," Leyland said. "I mean, that's pretty good for where I came from. I love it. Who the heck would think you'd ever be beating the Yankees in Game 5 at Yankee Stadium when you're Jim Leyland and you think back to 1964? That's the farthest thing from your mind."

Leyland has matured, and Lakeland has, too, now up towards 100,000 residents. He's more likely to grab a nice dinner in town than drop a dollar and a quarter at a cafeteria. But he'll never forget those days.

He outlasted the All-American catcher, the all-stater, and plenty more after that.

"Fifty years," Leyland said. "That's not bad for a .222 hitter in the Minor Leagues."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.