Leyland raised the bar, expectations for Tigers baseball

Jim Leyland led the Detroit Tigers to the World Series in his first season as their manager.

Jim Leyland led the Detroit Tigers to the World Series in his first season as their manager.

Mention the name “Jim Leyland” anywhere in the state of Michigan and one of two reactions is almost guaranteed: 1) A rigorous and heartfelt defense of his managerial skills; or 2) a passionate disdain for the same. Fan sentiment for the man who has led the Detroit Tigers to three straight ALCS appearances is the most polarized we can remember for any sports figure in Detroit.

For the Tigers fans who refuse to question Leyland’s tactical moves as a manager, they unquestionably feel a profound sense of gratitude and loyalty to a man who took the Tigers from being the topic of late night talk show fodder to the World Series in his first year at the helm.

For these fans, one needs to go back to how we all felt after the 2003 season when the Tigers came within a hair of setting the all-time loss record for a Major League team. Watching our boys lose 119 games had to be the definite low point for an otherwise respectable franchise. Fast forward just three years later and there was Leyland (remember those “Leyland for Governor” T-shirts?) marching his 2006 troops into the Fall Classic. It was truly a remarkable feat and every indication at the time was that the Skipper – the man calling the shots — made all the difference in the world.

On the opposite side are those fans who now have heightened expectations (ironically set by Leyland himself) and who consider anything short of a World Series championship a lost season. The bar for these fans is set incredibly high and “close” just doesn’t cut it any longer. They want the ring and they want it now.

It is quite possible that Leyland has become the casualty of his own success. By giving us a perpetual contender, he has created an atmosphere where even an unsuccessful trip to the World Series has become a major letdown. Frustrated Tigers fans have been left feeling like the bridesmaids who never quite make it to the altar. There is a feeling of envy and resentment for the teams and cities that continue to beat us out for the grand prize.

For those caught somewhere in the middle, the feeling is a mix of frustration and guilt when it comes to questioning Leyland’s managerial decisions. These fans realize that without Leyland, we wouldn’t be perennial contenders, so how can we possibly get down on him now?

Leyland is like our grandfather, a good man with the best of intentions. He even sheds tears when he feels like he’s failed us. He feels sympathy for the working man and the plight of Detroiters who always seem to take it on the proverbial chin whenever there is an economic downturn. We truly believe Leyland is “one of us” and that he would give his front teeth to bring home a World Series trophy for all of us to share. How do you question loyalty like that?

It comes into question when the expectations are so high that Las Vegas bookmakers like your chances of winning better than anyone else before the season even starts; it comes from having two Cy Young award winners and a Triple Crown winner on your team and knowing that this combination should blow every other team out of the water; it comes from having a team owner who would sacrifice his own flesh-and-blood to hoist a World Series trophy over his head, let alone the fact that he’s already offered his wallet in order to do so.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us feeling badly for a manager whose heart is unquestionably in the right place but whose head sometimes causes problems in close and crucial games.

We suspect that the explanation given for his departure at his farewell press conference was a bit less than accurate and that Leyland was “encouraged” to step down as manager by his boss. It’s reached the point where ownership and front office management are not willing to settle for second best any longer. They, too, want desperately to win.

What we got was a compromise that is symbolic of the polarized sentiments of the fans themselves: the Tigers showed respect and gratitude for the man who raised the bar for the Tigers, but also acknowledged that it may take the skills of someone else to reach the ultimate goal.

Count us in the middle camp as well. Our best to Jim Leyland and a profound “thank you” to him for bringing a troubled franchise to the point where three consecutive trips to the ALCS and losing the World Series just isn’t good enough.  That wouldn’t have happened without him.

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About Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas is the original founder and owner of Detroit Athletic Co. He enjoys free-lance writing as well and his articles have appeared in The Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press, Crain's Detroit Business and The Wall Street Journal.