Leyland plays it smart Pirates manager puts players first

October 13, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Lately, there has been no shortage of people, toddlers to grown-ups, calling Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland dumb.

Leyland's 1-year-old son, Patrick, has mangled "da-da" into "dumb-dumb." A group of Pirates fans questioned his common sense after Leyland didn't bring pitcher Tim Wakefield back to start Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on one day's rest.

Leyland seemingly can't win anywhere but the playing field, where he is hailed widely as one of baseball's best managers.

During his seven-year tenure, Leyland has guided the Pirates to three consecutive National League East championships, and is already the fourth-winningest manager in the franchise's 105-year history. He was National League Manager of the Year in 1990, and was runner-up to Bobby Cox of the Atlanta Braves last year.

The Pirates finished as runners-up to the Braves in last year's NLCS and are in danger of doing so again if rookie pitcher Wakefield can't win Game 6 tonight in Atlanta. Wakefield, who won Game 3 Friday, will face Tom Glavine in a rematch.

But if the Pirates lose their third straight NLCS or go on to win Leyland's first pennant, he said that his approach to the game won't change one bit.

"Sure, I'd like to win. You want the satisfaction of winning, but I don't think I'm going to think of myself as any worse of a manager if we don't," said Leyland.

Like many big-league managers, Leyland, 46, was a career minor-leaguer who never got to The Show.

He caught for six years in the Detroit Tigers farm system, then became a coach and eventually a manager, gaining success at all minor-league levels.

Leyland got his first big break on the managerial road when he joined the Chicago White Sox as a third-base coach under then-manager Tony La Russa.

The two became close friends and continue to share that friendship, even as La Russa guides the Oakland Athletics 3,000 miles away.

Leyland and La Russa also share a managerial philosophy, too, that baseball is a player's game.

"I take responsibilities for the club's performance," Leyland said. "I'm not being a martyr here, but managers are supposed to take the blame when the club doesn't succeed. If we are successful, then the players get the credit. That's the way it is, and I agree with that."

Toward that end, Leyland, like La Russa, is fiercely supportive of his players, who return that loyalty.

Take Bob Walk, for instance. Walk is a 35-year-old journeyman pitcher, who, by Leyland's reckoning, has stayed on the Pirates pitching staff by the most slender of margins.

Yet, Leyland has gone back to Walk time and time again in a variety of roles, from starter to bullpen and back again.

In Sunday's Game 5, Leyland needed Walk to keep the Braves at bay and keep the Pirates, down three games to one, from being eliminated in the series.

Walk responded with a one-run, three-hit complete game.

"I'd just have to thank Jim for giving me the opportunity to do this sort of thing," said Walk. "He's really been a big help to my career. He's really kind of taken care of me. I don't think I would have had as successful a career as I've had with another manager."

Then there's Barry Bonds, whose talent and ego presented as much blessing and burden for Leyland as Jose Canseco's did for La Russa.

The pair had a celebrated blowout during spring training last year after Bonds orally attacked bench coach Bill Virdon.

Leyland confronted Bonds and chastised him. Yet, the confrontation far from estranged them -- it actually drew them closer.

Bonds, in the throes of a horrid postseason slump over three playoff series, had a 90-minute meeting with his manager after Game 4, and, perhaps not so coincidentally, ended an 0-for-15 playoff batting drought with runners in scoring position the next night.

"Jim Leyland, to me, is the best manager I've ever played for, and best friend and best person a younger person can look up to," Bonds said after Game 5.

"Your manager is always your leader on a ball team. If your manager isn't the leader, you're not going to be successful. You have to love him. You have to admire him. Everybody knows the status of Pittsburgh and its financial situation. We've always been able to come through the adversity because of Jim Leyland."

It is that financial situation, in which Pittsburgh, the second-smallest National League market, is unable to bid for or keep big-money free agents, that may separate Leyland and Bonds.

The Pirates have lost Bobby Bonilla, Sid Bream and pitcher John Smiley in the past two seasons and kept winning.

Bonds, the 1990 National League Most Valuable Player, and pitcher Doug Drabek, the 1990 Cy Young Award winner, will be free agents at the end of this season, and the Pirates may not be able to keep either.

But, if that happens, don't count on Leyland to change a single thing.

"I want Doug Drabek and Barry Bonds to get as much money as they can get," he said. "If it's here, fine, and if it's not here, fine. We'll go on and do what we have to."

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