Leyland's first-year ring a fit for Miller? Club fortunes change hands for 2 old friends

March 17, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A first-year manager of a team brandishing grandiose plans along with a monstrous payroll.

This year he is Ray Miller.

Last year that man was Jim Leyland.

"I walked into a great situation last year. And so has Ray," Leyland said before his defending world champion Florida Marlins lost to the Orioles, 10-4, last night. "I know Ray Miller. I know Ray Miller does a great job. He's dedicated. He's going to be prepared. And he knows he's got a good team. That's a nice combination. That's a real comfortable situation."

The two friends met last night behind the batting cage at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, Leyland wearing his World Series ring, Miller wearing the broad smile of a man in charge of a known commodity. Leyland and Miller shared the same clubhouse for 10 years in Pittsburgh, where they worked as manager and pitching coach of a Pirates team that won three consecutive NL East titles but never reached the World Series before disintegrating from financial pressure.

Now Leyland experiences a painful deja vu. Miller commiserates. Leyland offers encouragement in return.

"Ray's a bright guy. He's very, very sharp. He's smart enough to know that this is the type pressure you want. You want a good team," said Leyland, whose team is projected to finish no better than third within the mostly toothless National League East.

"I got upset a couple times this winter when people were telling me, 'You've got it made. You got a nice salary. You've got no pressure. You just won the World Series.' Hey, that's not what I want. I want that pressure. I loved last year. It was pressure but it was good pressure because we had a good team. You don't want to sit around with everybody telling you, 'It's too bad you lost your players.' You thrive on the competition; that's what motivates you."

Many wonder what will motivate Leyland this season. Even he gropes for an answer. Last winter the Marlins traded away the core of the team that went from wild-card entry to world champions. And already he has endured a hellish spring. A soon-to-be-released book portrays him as a sexist lout with an uncompromising attitude toward media. And just last week, his wallet and $3,000 were stolen from the Marlins' clubhouse.

Few have defended Leyland from the book's character assassination more vigorously than his old pitching coach. Miller and Leyland suffered a professional falling out in 1995, but their mutual respect never eroded. Angered by the violation of what he considers one of baseball's most down-to-earth, honest people, Miller again defended Leyland yesterday.

"I don't want to rehash [the book]," he said, "but I was with the man for 10 years and I have never seen him publicly embarrass anyone. He's as organized as anybody in the world. If he had to rip your [butt], he'd [do it] in private. There is nobody I respect more in baseball."

A major-league manager for the 13th consecutive season, Leyland finds himself in a tough spot. He is expected to help a LTC stripped-down franchise sell tickets, but has no intention of selling out his hard-earned credibility. Miller witnessed up close how a similar situation ate away at him in Pittsburgh.

Leyland freely admits being defeated by the collapse in Pittsburgh, estimating he may have cost his team five wins in 1995, but vows the same will not occur in Miami, saying only, "I'll do my job."

When the comparison is made between Pittsburgh and his current team, Leyland offers a succinct rebuttal. "Pittsburgh was more gradual. This was like a complete bolt of lightning," he said of losing the likes of Moises Alou, Kevin Brown, Wilson Alvarez and Robb Nen during the off-season.

Miller has wondered loud and long about who will be his 25th man. Leyland waited until last night to name his starting rotation and second baseman. As his former pitching coach steers a $70 million clubhouse projected to challenge for a championship, Leyland walks around burned. "It's not the talent. The talent's fine. It's the uncertainty of not knowing how they're going to respond, of not knowing what I've really got," Leyland said.

"I don't know what the results are going to be. And the uncertainty is uncomfortable for a manager. Last year I knew what I had. I knew what to expect."

His clubhouse literally sold from underneath him, Leyland could have exercised a walkaway clause last winter because of the Marlins' pending sale. He remained in South Florida out of loyalty his coaching staff but, according to associates, only postponed enforcement of the clause until after this season.

Leyland isn't talking title. Instead he offers the credo: "It's going to be better than people think. It's not going to be as bad as people think."

However, when somebody asks what chance the Marlins have to repeat, he closes his eyes and snores, as if to say "you're dreaming."

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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