Friday, February 15, 2008

Leyland Will Earn His Pay This Year Like Never Before

Please, do not take this as any sort of dismissal of what Jim Leyland did in 2006. Let's make that clear. But baseball history is filled with those skippers who take chicken feathers and make chicken salad for a short period of time, before the ingredients get stale and you're ready to snap a clothespin on your nose.

Leyland's 2006 magic, which resulted in taking a below-.500 team all the way to the World Series in 12 months, should never be forgotten. It was one of the most stunning turnarounds in Detroit sports history.

But frankly, that might prove to be the easiest season Leyland will ever have in Detroit.

This is the 2006 version of Leyland's monkey; 2008's has the potential to be more King Kong-like

It's one thing to guide a team thru the waters when there isn't much expected out of it. Had the Tigers capsized, it would have been written off to the growing pains suffered under a new leader. But the Tigers didn't capsize, though they rocked and swayed down the stretch. Yet they made the playoffs and righted themselves in October. It was a marvelous job of managing.

But that and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee right about now.

Now, the talk is World Series -- and the players haven't all reported to spring training yet. Perusing the Net, national baseball writers are using superlatives to describe the Tigers like never before.

"Will the Tigers score 1,000 runs? 2,000?"

"Will they win 110 games? More?"

And so on.

So now is where Leyland REALLY earns the big bucks -- when there is suddenly a Yankees-like approach to the season: World Series or bust.

It's heady stuff, and not since 1985 -- and before that, 1969 -- have the Tigers been roundly looked at as World Series contenders so seriously. Those were the two years after their most recent world championships, so it was natural that they were deemed the "team to beat". But when was the last time that a Tigers team that didn't even make the playoffs the previous season was hailed as odds-on favorites to go all the way? Maybe never?

So this is what Jim Leyland must do: cobble together a team of superstars into a driven, focused bunch that won't get sucked in by its own press clippings. He must deftly use a shaky bullpen to complement his talented starting rotation. But the biggest job he has is to make sure the Tigers are OK between the ears.

No sneaking up on people this time. No feel-good stories here. Just the realization of so many people's expectations, which are the highest.

It's Yankees-like pressure, and it hasn't been felt around here in eons.

Never will Leyland have a tougher time of it in Detroit than this season, methinks.


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