How It Be In The D

October 20, 2006

Na, na, na, na…Hey, hey, hey goodbye

There were few people in the Detroit area not succumbing to the collective elation at the Tiger’s sweeping the Oakland Athletics, which has now taken them to the World Series. However, the Tigers’ miraculous turnaround during the 2005-2006 baseball season was due to some of the most basic, overlooked elements of the game: teamwork and chemistry. Their battle against the Yankees is an example of this statement.

For much of the last 10 years during which they had a resurgence, the New York Yankees have endured the public’s dislike. Their perception as being one bought by George Steinbrenner is due to them having one of the highest payrolls (around $194 million). This payroll has allowed them to snap up free agents and star players from other teams such as pitchers David Wells, Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson; sluggers Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez; and, former Boston Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon. While Steinbrenner has been successful at recruiting players long enough to win championships (his sole intention), he has not kept them together in a cohesive unit. What is missing is commitment to the idea of being part of something bigger than themselves.

On the polar opposite are the Detroit Tigers. They differ from superstar teams in several ways. Except for maybe (catcher) Ivan “Pudge” Rodríguez, the Tigers didn’t acquire known superstars. At the beginning of 2005-2006 season, most of the key players on the team were relative unknowns or people written off by other teams. Every one of the Tigers acquisitions or trades was made with the intention of adding to a puzzle. While superstar teams’ strategy has been to acquire superstars and overwhelm opposing teams, the Tigers were about acquiring great players who, in the context of a team, became greater.

Another huge difference was manager Jim Leyland. His importance cannot be underestimated. Leyland started off as a Tigers catcher and spent six seasons as a minor leaguer until acquiring his first minor league coaching position in 1970. From then on, Leyland coached in the Tigers’ minor league system until 1982 and leaving to become Tony LaRussa’s third base coach (1982-1985) for the Chicago White Sox. Subsequently, he managed the Pittsburgh Pirates (1986-1996), became Manager of the Year (1990, 1992) and took them to the National League Championship Series (1990-1992) though losing all three times. In 1997, Leyland was hired to manage the Florida Marlins, leading them to their first championship though they were only around for five years. He stayed on until 1998 and left to coach the Colorado Rockies (1999). Leyland didn’t have another coaching position until being rehired into the Tigers’ organization in 2005 as manager. Many people, including the Tigers’ commentators have attributed his tough, no-nonsense coaching style to his 11 years as a minor league coach, which taught him the coaching fundamentals that other coaches learn along the way once reaching the major league level. While Leyland had successful with Pittsburgh and Colorado, it wasn’t recognized until he rejoined the Tigers

His strong relationship with the players allowed him to nurture many of the younger ones into confident athletes able to stare down much more recognized teams and removed their egos from the team equation and utilize the older players’ experience. Leyland was as able to chastise players not performing to his level of high excellence as to leave a troubled pitcher to extricate himself. To summarize up how the players regard him, Brandon Inge (third baseman) was quoted in the ESPN biography on Leyland, regarding his commenting on Kirby Puckett’s death, “This guy [Leyland] right here didn’t even know Kirby Puckett very well and is going to break down over him because he meant so much to the game. Then, you know he’s gonna care about every one of us in the clubhouse. That right there was the moment everybody in the clubhouse was like ‘Wow, we’ll play to our death for this guy.’ ” Players grew to know that Leyland always knew what he was doing and never questioned his decisions. The decisions as well as his and the players’ arrivals were part of bigger picture—achieving big success through building upon small ones.

While Tigers’ long-suffering fans might owe their team’s victory to a “miracle,” it was anything but that. The Tigers reaching the World Series was due to the fundamentals of sportsmanship: putting the team above the individual. When Sean Casey (first baseman) was on the disabled list because of a torn calf, Pudge Rodriguez volunteered to replace him. Leyland, though grateful for the gesture, told him that he would be much better as catcher. I cannot think of any such incident in recent sports memory.

Also, Leyland and his players finally came into their own. He found a group of players that were ripe with potential though it was not able to fully develop. Leyland’s gruff honesty yet quiet nurturing allowed his players to feel motivated enough to give nothing less than their best, complete effort and last and not least to just have fun. Hard work hardly seems worthwhile without enjoying its benefits.

It might have taken 22 years for the Tigers to reach the pinnacle but long overdue. Their victory can serve as nothing less but a lesson to managers on how to lead players and players to follow their manager’s direction. Teams not superstars achieve consistent victory. It cannot be prima donna players that call the shots but strong, competent management. If players and management forget these lessons, then they will find themselves in the seemingly bottomless pit of mediocrity and unable to get out of it unless they remember these lessons and hold them central to what they do.


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