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Tigers manager Leyland getting back in hunt

| Friday, Sept. 30, 2011

DETROIT — As the MLB playoff picture hit full scramble mode this week, Jim Leyland enjoyed the certainty of one thing, the most important thing.

"We're in," the Detroit Tigers manager said the other day. "Why should we be worried about anything• We're gonna have our chance. I don't know what we're gonna do with it, but we're in. There's no chaos."

That was left for Tampa Bay, Boston, St. Louis and Atlanta. Leyland was glad it wasn't him. Instead, there was calm, American League Central Division championship signs going up and playoff tickets moving at Comerica Park.

As madness unfolded elsewhere Wednesday night, Leyland's club simply played on and won again, wrapping up a 95-win season. Home-field advantage would have been nice, but no one pressed. The Tigers were among the eight clubs left standing. Tonight, they start their division series against the Yankees in New York.

In his 20th season as a big league manager, 25 years after taking the Pirates' helm, Leyland savored the moment — and the calm — before starting the second season. Let the fans and media get worked up over "this scenario, that scenario," he said. "I'm happy."

Leyland wasn't smiling, of course. He is baseball's resident curmudgeon, often described as "crusty," as if he were a menu item. And when he says "happy," he means for his players, toward whom he deflects all the credit with no apparent false modesty.

"I don't think I had anything to do with it," he said. "I think there were a lot of guys ... who would have gotten this team to the postseason. I'd like to say I'm the only one, but it would be a total lie."

Leyland, who will return home to Thornburg "as soon as the season's over," said he liked his team coming out of spring training but did not anticipate this. A slow start, including a seven-game losing streak in May, offered cause for concern. Media reports suggested his contract might not be extended.

But that was before right-hander Justin Verlander became Sandy Koufax and general manager Dave Dombrowski swung several key trades. The Tigers won 46 of their last 68 games, winning 12 straight earlier this month to settle the division race. Leyland and Dombrowski got multiyear extensions, although Leyland said he was never concerned.

"It's been a rewarding season because this is what we try to do," he said. "This is what you go to spring training for. When you accomplish something like this, you can't explain to people how good it feels.

"It's fun. It's an accomplishment. We're getting our chance to play for the big prize like seven other teams, and that's what you do this for. You have a chance to thrill your fans; you have a chance to disappoint. You don't know what's gonna happen. But at least we've earned this right, and that's the hardest step."

Leyland lauds his old pal Dombrowski, who in July landed a No. 3 hitter (outfielder Delmon Young), starting third baseman (Wilson Betemit) and right-hander Doug Fister, who pitched even better than Verlander in the past month.

As Florida Marlins general manager, Dombrowski hired Leyland after he left the cash-poor and ultimately doomed Pirates in 1996. The pair immediately won a world championship. In 2006 in Detroit, Dombrowski enticed Leyland to end a six-year managing hiatus, and the Tigers went to the World Series, losing to St. Louis.

"We have a very good relationship," Leyland said. "He basically gives me the players, and I manage 'em. And I kind of stay out of his way. He stays out of mine. But we share ideas, we share opinions and we have a real good working relationship."

At 66, Leyland acknowledged he has calmed since his emotionally charged days of erupting before players, umpires and reporters. Others concur.

"He's still fiery, but he's mellowed out," veteran third baseman Brandon Inge said. "The thing is, he understands. The very first day he came in and said, 'It's not about me.' "

"He knows how to treat guys, but at the same time, he lets you know who's boss," said Verlander, a 24-game winner and Cy Young Award favorite. "He's very direct, and I think that's a trait in a great manager."

The essence of Leyland's approach is "how he handles men and how loyal he is to them," said former Tigers great Al Kaline, who works in the front office. "He's a very honest guy, and if he has something to say, he says it. He tells the truth. He treats 'em fair."

Leyland said there is nothing extraordinary about this. It's how he was raised in Ohio amid a large family, the son of a factory man also named Jim whose principles and ironclad work ethic rubbed off.

"Most of managing is like any other form of supervisor or foreman," Leyland said. "My dad was a supervisor and a foreman in a factory, so he was dealing with people all the time. He was one of 16, so there were a lot of aunts and uncles, a lot of personalities. You watched 'em all, you listened to 'em all. My wife's one of 11. I'm one of seven. You're around a lot of different people. Everyone's not the same. I think that really helped me.

"I treat people like I like to be treated. I think it's pretty simple. It's a common-sense thing."

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