10/21/2013 12:48 P.M. ET
Leyland's sense of moment a unique quality
By Tracy Ringolsby / MLB.com
Jim Leyland always has known when it was time to leave.
He has never wanted to hang around so long that the owners and fans get tired of him.
The old saying is managers are hired to be fired. Well, if that's the case, Leyland went 0-for-4. He has been hired to manage four times and was never dismissed from his post.
Leyland made official on Monday what had been assumed since the spring: He's stepping down as manager of the Detroit Tigers, a team that won the American League Central the last three years, and the one he took to the World Series in 2006 and '12. The Tigers are enjoying good times, and Leyland felt this was a good time to leave, allowing his replacement to inherit a club primed to remain a factor in the AL for the next couple of years.
Leyland is 68. He's been in the game for 50 years, starting in the Detroit organization as a Minor League player and manager. And after having managed in the big leagues for 22 of the last 29 years, ranking 15th on the game's all-time win list with 1,769, Leyland is ready to step back.
He will still be with the Tigers, but it will be in a more low-key role, like the seven years he spent in St. Louis between managerial stints with Colorado and Detroit, serving as a consultant for the St. Louis Cardinals.
And those seven years in between the Rockies and the Tigers underscore Leyland's integrity.
When the Rockies dismissed their original manager, Don Baylor, after the 1998 season, they signed Leyland to a three-year contract that paid him $2 million annually. Midway through the first year, Leyland knew he didn't fit in the wacky world of Coors Field, where the more traditional a manager is, the bigger challenge the ballpark becomes. He didn't announce the decision until season's end, but he kept ownership informed so they could begin to formulate plans for a replacement.
Leyland's family never even moved to Colorado. He lived out of the conference room, next to his office in the clubhouse. He told the Rockies he was quitting after the first year, knowing quite well that walking out in the middle of the contract meant the Rockies controlled any managerial job he might consider for the next seven years.
It didn't matter. Leyland is a man of conviction. He realized early on in Colorado that he took the job for the wrong reason -- money. And he, to this day, is quick to say he was ill-suited for that job, and was disappointed in a last-place finish and 72-90 record. He walked away from $4 million, and his only regret was he didn't do a better job for the men who paid him a handsome salary.
Leyland waited six years before he even interviewed for another managerial job -- with Philadelphia, which opted for Charlie Manuel -- and then was reunited with longtime friend Dave Dombrowski in Detroit in 2006. The two of them knew each other from Leyland's days as a coach on the staff of Tony La Russa with the Chicago White Sox, when Dombrowski was in the front office.
It was a perfect fit for Leyland. Having begun his baseball life in the Tigers organization and having grown up in northern Ohio, slightly more than an hour from Detroit, the Detroit managerial job had long been a dream.
It was also Dombrowski who hired Leyland in Florida, where Leyland managed a Marlins team that won a World Series championship in 1997, only its fifth year of existence.
Leyland always had success where he managed, except in Colorado. But he also knew that time was not an ally, at least in his first two managerial opportunities. No sense in a Kentucky Derby-caliber jockey try riding a claiming horse in the Run for the Roses.
Leyland spent 11 years in Pittsburgh, where he took over a team in 1986 that was coming off a 104-loss season, equaling the third-highest loss total that franchise has accumulated since 1890. Four years later, the Pirates won the first of three National League East titles, losing in six games to Cincinnati in the 1990 NL Championship Series, and to Atlanta in seven games apiece in 1991-92.
After the '92 season, however, the budget shrunk in Pittsburgh. The top players were either traded or left as free agents, and four years later, Leyland resigned, knowing that the level he had reached financially was out of line with the Pirates' budget. He could have stayed. He was a part of the Pittsburgh fabric, but he knew better than to force himself on the franchise.
Leyland wound up in Florida, enjoyed the benefits of an owner who went on a big-time spending spree to land free agents and beef up the roster, and was able to take a group of superstars and mold them into a team that claimed the NL Wild Card before knocking off San Francisco in the NL Division Series, former Pittsburgh nemesis Atlanta in the NLCS, and then Cleveland in seven games in the World Series.
The morning of the victory parade in South Florida, however, owner H. Wayne Huizenga informed Marlins management he wanted to blow up the roster to cut costs, and by the middle of the 1998 season the Marlins had unloaded every significant player who had enough service time to go to arbitration or potentially become a free agent.
Closer Robb Nen, top two starters Kevin Brown and Al Leiter, first baseman Jeff Conine, center fielder Devon White and left fielder Moises Alou were dealt before the spring of '98, and fifth starter Tony Saunders was exposed to the expansion draft and selected by Tampa Bay. And then, during the '98 season, catcher Charles Johnson, third baseman Bobby Bonilla, right fielder Gary Sheffield, and fourth outfielder Jim Eisenreich were all sent to the Dodgers.
And 108 losses later, knowing that his salary was a drag on a team that was in for a long road back to contention, Leyland resigned, not knowing that the Rockies would quickly come calling.
What he did know was he didn't fit in Florida.
And so like he did in Pittsburgh and Colorado, and like he has now done in Detroit, Leyland made the decision on his own to leave town.
He never has been one who wanted to overstay his welcome.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.