Jim Leyland, who retired three years ago, led the United States to a World Baseball Classic championship last night. It is the final feather in a baseball cap full of accomplishments and a poetic way for the 72-year-old to go out, should he choose not to come back in 2017.
His Hall of Fame credentials were already impressive before the tournament began. He racked up 1,769 wins during his 22 regular seasons on the bench. He won a World Series with the Florida Marlins and two pennants with the Detroit Tigers but is perhaps best known for his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates — a tenure that included three consecutive 95-plus win seasons.
A throwback who wears cleats in the dugout and was known to smoke in the clubhouse tunnel, Leyland is a study in dichotomy. His gruff, all-business exterior is augmented by a sentimental softness and ability to connect with players — even those half-a-century younger than him who were on the field against Puerto Rico.
Leyland is baseball. He’s an old-school dog who learned enough new-school tricks to stay relevant and successful. At the peril of sounding hokey, there’s something beautiful about his relationship with the game. He gave so much and has been richly rewarded.
If last night was his last time wearing the uniform, he struck a perfect final note.
“Well, I’ve been retired for three years, and I’m going to stay retired –that I can promise you,” he said in the haze of victory. “But I think I said it on the podium, I think this is the best part about it. I had the honor of managing for our country, you know, the coaches having the honor of coaching for our country, the players have the honor of playing for our country, but this is really about the men and women that serve our country. That’s who this is for.”
Leyland is not cool. He does not run things through a prism in an attempt to shape a public image. He couldn’t care about his “brand.”
He’s just a baseball lifer who was true to himself. His down-to-earth earnestness endeared him to fans in Pittsburgh and Detroit, two blue-collar towns. His victory last night should endure him to any American fan who underappreciated his steady hand and fearless persistence through 50 years of professional baseball.
Next stop, Cooperstown.