DETROIT — A picture of Jim Leyland’s face stared out from the video board at an empty Comerica Park, next to that familiar Olde English “D” and a message that said simply: “Thank You Jim.”
After eight seasons managing the Tigers, including three division titles and two American League pennants, Leyland stepped down Monday. His voice cracking at times, wiping away tears at others, he announced his departure two days after Detroit was eliminated by Boston in the AL championship series.
“It’s been a thrill,” the 68-year-old Leyland said during a news conference at the ballpark. “I came here to change talent to team, and I think with the help of this entire organization, I think we’ve done that. We’ve won quite a bit. I’m very grateful to have been a small part of that.”
Leyland made his managerial debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1986, and from Barry Bonds to Miguel Cabrera, he’s managed some of the sport’s biggest stars and been involved in some of baseball’s most memorable games over the past quarter-century.
In 1992, his Pirates lost Game 7 of the NLCS when Atlanta rallied in the bottom of the ninth inning. Five years later, Leyland won his only World Series title as manager when his Florida Marlins beat Cleveland in an 11-inning thriller in Game 7.
He’s experienced some of the highest highs the game has to offer, but he also endured difficult rebuilding periods in both Pittsburgh and Florida.
After one season with the Colorado Rockies, Leyland didn’t manage at all from 2000-05 before Detroit hired him. Leyland led the Tigers to the World Series immediately after taking over in 2006, losing to St. Louis in five games. The Tigers went to the World Series again in 2012 but were swept by San Francisco.
Leyland worked under one-year contracts the last couple years, saying he was content to wait until after the season to address his status. He was reflective late this season, mentioning to reporters that he had already managed the Tigers longer than he had expected they would keep him, but he also said in September that he still loved the atmosphere, the competition and his team.
In fact, he’d actually told general manager Dave Dombrowski in early September that he didn’t want to return as manager. He expects to remain with the organization in some capacity after going 700-597 as a manager.
“I’m not totally retiring today, I’m just not going to be in the dugout anymore,” Leyland said. “I hope and pray that you give the next manager the same respect and the same chance that you gave me.”
Leyland says his health is fine, but it’s time to stop managing. He said he started weighing his decision around June.
“I started thinking this was getting a little rough. I thought that the fuel was getting a little low,” Leyland said. “I knew that I’d get through it because I knew we’d be playing for something.”
Detroit’s players found out about Leyland’s departure after Saturday night’s game in Boston, when the Red Sox won Game 6 to take the series.
“You’ve got your head down, you lost and the season’s over, and then Jim dropped that bomb on us,” outfielder Torii Hunter said. “I just had a feeling that it could have been his last year. All year, he was kind of emotional, and I just felt it.”
Leyland said there was no announcement Saturday because he wanted the focus to be on the victorious Red Sox. However, he was honest about how much this defeat hurt.
“With all due respect to the Boston Red Sox — who earned it, they won it, they deserve to be where they are — I truly believe the Detroit Tigers should be playing here tomorrow,” Leyland said. “This is one that’s going to stick with me, this is one that really hurts, because I really felt like we let it get away.”
When Leyland arrived at the Tigers’ training camp this year, it marked 50 seasons since he first showed up there as an 18-year-old prospect. His playing career never amounted to much, but his accomplishments as a manager over more than two decades have been impressive.
He is 1,769-1,728 overall during stints with the Tigers, Pirates, Marlins and Rockies.
“I had sent him a text yesterday morning, just to congratulate he and the organization,” Boston manager John Farrell said. “Not only on a great team and a great year, and express the respect we have for him and certainly personally have for him throughout his career. To see the announcement today, and listen to him and know that early September this was clearly in his mind, that surprised me.”
When Leyland took over the Tigers, they had gone 12 years without a winning season. Under Leyland, they finished under .500 only once.
Detroit has become one of baseball’s glamour teams of late, with stars like Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer helping the team win games and draw fans. Cabrera won the Triple Crown and MVP award last year. Verlander won the MVP and Cy Young Award the previous season.
“It’s been as much fun for me to manage Ramon Santiago is it has Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander,” Leyland said. “Now in saying that, it was also an honor to manage the Triple Crown winner, an MVP, a Cy Young winner.”
The Tigers should be able to keep their core of players mostly together for next season, but now they’ll need to find a new manager to replace Leyland, who always earned high marks for his ability to keep his veterans focused.
“He really cares deeply about his players,” utility man Don Kelly said. “When you go out there, the way he treats you, you want to run through a wall for him, go out there and get a win. That’s the way he treated me, he treated everybody like that.”