Leyland more than just baseball

PITTSBURGH – Some of the best Jim Leyland moments were in his office four hours before a game when he was in a story-telling mood.

Fueled by Marlboros and coffee, he’d talk about the temporary winter jobs he had in his days as a minor leaguer – selling 29-cent rose bushes at a place called Bargain City, skidding a mail truck off an icy road into a ditch, working as a hod carrier and sinking like quicksand at a muddy construction site.

The jobs were time fillers to augment his modest income and bridge the gap from one baseball season to another.

Leyland isn’t just a baseball success story, he’s an American success story.

He left home after his high school graduation for a chance to play professional baseball.

He arrived at his first spring training camp and said he knew instantly that he would never make it as a player. He may have been a hotshot in Perrysburg, Ohio, but the other players were bigger, stronger, faster, better.

He hung on for a few years as a backup catcher mostly because teams always need catching help and a manager would always admire Leyland’s willingness to do whatever was asked.

He paid attention, and squeezed a couple of seasons out of his minimal talent.

Then he’d head home to Perrysburg and make some extra money working for the Post Office or Bargain City.

He got a chance to manage in the low minors, another job that paid badly. He loved it. At some of the stops, he’d live in the clubhouse to save the cost of an apartment.

What difference did it make? He was going to spend most of his time at the ballpark anyway.

He rose slowly through the Tigers minor league system, a no-name who eventually worked his way to the Class AAA level. He hoped for a chance at the major leagues, but the Tigers would never take him as a coach.

Sparky Anderson was the manager, and he would fill staff openings with cronies. One winter, he hired Billy Consolo, a former utility player who had been cutting hair for a living.

One of Leyland’s brothers called to mock him: “They hired a barber instead of you.”

His break came when former minor league rival Tony LaRussa offered him a chance to coach with the Chicago White Sox. Even though the Tigers had neglected him, Leyland sought their approval before he accepted the job.

The visibility helped. He interviewed for managing jobs. He didn’t get them. He lost patience with the process.

When the Pirates called, Leyland thought it was his wise guy brother poking fun again. So, “Jim, this is Syd Thrift with the Pirates” was met with, “Yeah, and I’m John McGraw,” followed by an angry hang-up.

Fortunately, Thrift called back.

It wasn’t much of a deal: A one-year contract to manage a team fresh off 104 losses. One of the biggest days in his life came that August, when the Pirates invited him back.

He turned that modest start into a 22-year MLB career. He retires with 1,769 wins, millions in the bank, a World Series ring, and a shot at the Hall of Fame.

Well done.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com