Friday, December 17, 2010

Leyland’s Contract Status Moot, Just Like Every Baseball Manager's

Jim Leyland is the manager of the Detroit Tigers for 2011. That much we know. After that, only time will tell.

You want more job security than that, if you’re a baseball manager, or a basketball, football or hockey coach?

Then get out of the business. Become a Supreme Court Justice, or a mortician, or a marriage counselor.

The contract on file with Major League Baseball says Leyland is bound by the written, legal word to be the manager of the Tigers through the 2011 season.

Coaches’ contracts in sports, though, have about as much integrity as Kwame Kilpatrick and hold as much water as a sieve.

I’ve used this quote a lot, but it will be true for infinity. It’s from Butch van Breda Kolff, the old basketball coach, uttered after he signed a renewal to lead the Pistons, circa 1971.

Butch said of the worth of coaches’ contracts, “Hell, they can always fire you. Or you can quit.”

Care to argue?

So Leyland will manage the Tigers for 2011, the final year of his two-year extension.
Get ready for the talk of Leyland being the Tigers’ “lame duck” manager.


Leyland works for Mike Ilitch, one of the kindest, fairest owners in all of sports. Ilitch awards his people, sometimes to a fault. If he feels Jim Leyland deserves more years added to his already-added-to contract, then the owner will give his manager those years. Simple as that.

That Ilitch hasn’t yet done so, leaving Leyland’s future with the Tigers beyond the final pitch of the 2011 season undetermined, is going to cause lots of folks consternation.

The hand-wringers will tell you that Leyland’s not having a signed contract beyond 2011 automatically means he’s a leper, and his players will look at him cockeyed and not take it so hard if they leave a man on third base with less than two outs or throw wildly to first base or walk the bases loaded.

Again, bull-you-know-what!

Is Leyland managing for his baseball life next season? Sure, but aren’t they all, all the time?

You think it truly matters if a manager or a coach has years left on his contract, if the owner gets it in his head to make a change?

The country is dotted with coaches being paid not to coach, enjoying their checks until their contracts expire. Just ask Pistons President Joe Dumars what it’s like to pay multiple coaches.

Leyland is a big boy. He knows the drill. He knows that his owner has, once again, opened his wallet and spent big money to bring players to Detroit and to keep them here. Leyland knows that in five years on the job with the Tigers, he has but one playoff appearance to show for it.

That playoff appearance is the only one Ilitch has enjoyed in his 18-plus years of owning the Tigers—which is not what Mike was expecting when he bought the team in 1992.

Leyland also knows that his team faded badly in 2006 (but still made the playoffs), in 2007, in 2009—including a history-making choke job in the season’s final week—and last year. He should also know that the 2008 team, which had been predicted to waltz to the World Series, never got out of the gate, ill-prepared for the expectations.

So it’s not so outlandish that Leyland isn’t extended to manage the Tigers beyond next season. In fact, it’s probably just.

Not that it matters, because they can always fire you, and you can quit.
Ever hear of Walter Alston?

Alston managed the Dodgers when they were still in Brooklyn, and continued after the move to Los Angeles. For 23 years, Alston managed the Dodgers.

In all but the final few years, Alston did so working on one-year contracts that were renewed every winter, pending the O’Malley family’s approval.

Eventually, the O’Malleys tried to sign Alston to multiple-year deals. But the manager refused, maintaining that he should be evaluated annually.

Finally Alston agreed to sign two-year deals.

Leyland isn’t the perfect baseball manager, but he’s probably good enough for the Tigers, with their revamped roster and more experience under the belts of their younger players.

It’s a job that Leyland adores and feels honored to perform. His beginnings with the organization date back to the early 1960s, when he was a scuffling player. He managed for years in the Tigers’ minor league system, before graduating to third base coach with Tony LaRussa’s Chicago White Sox.

Earlier this month, at the winter meetings in Florida, Leyland was asked about the team, and how he feels—both physically and about his roster.

“I feel OK. I smoke too much,” he said. “But this is a good team. We have a great owner. The city is special. The Tigers are special. I love managing.”

There are plenty of fans who aren’t so enamored with Leyland. Familiarity breeds contempt. You stick around in a city long enough, you’re going to make your enemies.

If you go 1-for-5 in baseball, you’re batting .200. Leyland is batting .200 as a manager, with that single playoff appearance in five years.

So why should Mike Ilitch be obligated to Jim Leyland beyond this season?

This is probably all moot anyway. I suspect that, unless the Tigers get off to a God-awful start, Leyland will be extended another two years, through the 2013 season—and that will likely occur sometime before the All-Star break.

Nowhere is it written that a baseball manager must be signed beyond the current season, or else there’ll be a mutiny.

Hey, what about the players who like Leyland so much—and there are plenty of them on the Tigers roster—that they may be inclined to play even harder for him, so that he may be rewarded with a new contract?

Jim Leyland is the manager of the Tigers for the 2011 season. Twenty-nine other men have the same designation for their teams, regardless of their contract status. They are their team’s manager—for now.

By the way, van Breda Kolff only lasted ten games into the 1971-72 season with the Pistons, after signing his contract extension.

He quit.


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