Former players laud Leyland upon his retirement
Sid Bream enjoyed some of the Pirates' good days under Jim Leyland. Dan Plesac endured some of the not-so-good days.
Yet, the memories they shared struck an identical note on Monday after the 68-year-old Leyland announced his retirement as the Detroit Tigers' manager, signaling the end of 22 seasons in the dugout.
“Jim Leyland was the best manager I ever had in Major League Baseball,” said Bream, a Pirates' first baseman from 1985 — the season before Leyland arrived — through 1990. “He knew what to do. He knew when to kick you in the butt and when to tell a joke. It didn't matter who you were. If you were the franchise, if he needed to get in your face, he'd get in your face.
“I really, really appreciate him,” Bream said. “I appreciate him as a human being. I appreciate him as a manager, and I certainly appreciate him as a great friend.”
Bream played on Leyland's first playoff team in 1990. Ironically, it was Bream who helped usher in the demise of the Pirates and Leyland's eventual departure when he scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning for Atlanta against the Pirates in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. It would take 21 years for the Pirates to post a winning record and return to the postseason. Leyland left after the 1996 season for south Florida, leading the Marlins to a world championship in 1997.
Plesac played with the Pirates in 1995 and 1996, a former star closer trying to reinvent himself as a set-up man. Stripped of much of its talent, the club posted a two-year record of 131-175, twice finishing last in the NL Central. But that did not alter the pitcher's impressions of Leyland.
“You know, I played for a long time, 18 years,” said Plesac, now a MLB Network analyst. “I played for some great managers. I've been around some great people. Jim Leyland was the best manager. I don't like to single anybody out, but the list of best managers I've played for is a very short list. His name is the only one on it.”
Plesac added: “He was a nice guy, he could be a tough guy. He knew when to wrap his arm you. He knew when to kick you in the butt.”
Plesac said he especially recalls Leyland's last home game at Three Rivers Stadium in 1996.
“I remember him walking around shaking hands when the game was over,” said Plesac. “He walked around the park waving to the crowd. I remember thinking, ‘Man, these people really love him.' . . .He's the best. He's genuine. I guess the best way to describe him is, he is what he is. He put his heart and soul into his players, his team, and he's done that at every stop.”
Leyland managed the Tigers for eight seasons beginning in 2006. Former Pirate and Point Park product Don Kelly — whose brother-in-law is Pirates second baseman Neil Walker — played several seasons for Leyland in Detroit.
“He really cares deeply about his players,” 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.”
Leyland, who has kept homes in the Pittsburgh area with his wife, Katie, since his Pirates days, retains a close emotional bond with the Pirates and the city.
“It's just a great place,” he told the Trib in May. “This is my home and I live here. The last thing I wanted to do was leave Pittsburgh as a manager. I've got a lot of friends here.”
Bob Cohn is a sports writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.