Like much of Detroit, Jim Leyland will be pulling for Justin Verlander and his Houston Astros (typing that will never feel right) in the World Series from afar. We caught up with the Tiger’s beloved former skipper last month, at his induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame for a little Q&A before the ceremony, as he dished on Justin Verlander, the current state of the Tigers, who he’s been rooting for down the stretch, and even a little about a possible Cooperstown induction down the road.
In a World Series with two former Tigers on the same team (Cameron Maybin, Verlander), Jim Leyland’s allegiance is clear, as is his fondness for Verlander.
Q. Jim, can you tell us what it was like managing Justin Verlander, obviously a tough loss having him being traded away, what was it like seeing him through as a rookie and seeing his development, what did it mean to you as a manager for the Tigers?
A. “Well, I can remember this as if it was yesterday. When I took the job, I asked Dave Dombrowski, ‘Are you gonna let me take the guys I wanna take?’
He said, ‘Well, within reason,’ and about two weeks into spring training I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna take him,’ and he said, ‘Well, you know, we don’t know yet, he’s pretty young.’ I said, ‘Well, we know what’s been going on, let’s try something different,” [and the] rest was history, he won 17 games, [he’s been] one of the faces of baseball, not just the Tigers. He’s been one of the great pitchers in all of baseball for the last several years, so [you know], obviously was a pretty good choice, but [you know] that’s because of Justin, what a great pitcher he is, what a great competitor he is.
[You know], I, I’m happy for him because I think it was the right move, I think it was the right move for the Tigers, I think it was the right move for him to accept it at this point, [you know], sure there’s some sentiment there and everybody would like to see him finish his career with his Tigers but who knows, maybe he will.”
Q. Jim, that’s an interesting [answer] ’cause it kind of segues into [my question], of all the players you’ve managed, I’d argue Justin Verlander is definitely one of the most talented, it’s kind of weird to see him in a different uniform, are you rooting for him this year? Would you like to see Houston [win] the World Series so he can get that ring?
A. “Well, I don’t really pick a team… [you know] I don’t know AJ Hinch that well, but I’m certainly pulling for Verlander, I’m pulling for Max Scherzer, I’m pulling for Rick Porcello, [you know] I could go anywhere and be pulling for somebody, JD Martinez, [you know] I mean I wanna see all those guys do well, but there’s only gonna be one winner [and hopefully] it will be somebody that has played or pitched for the Tigers in the past and there’s a good chance that’s gonna happen.”
But what about the Tigers themselves?
Q. How do you, you saw a guy that you won a lot of baseball games with in Justin Verlander get traded away to the Astros, [how does], when you look at this team now, I mean, how do you take it all in?
A. “Well it’s just part of it. I went through, you know, I was on a team that, I managed a team that won a World Series in 1997, we lost 108 games, you know, in 1998 because we played 38 rookies.
They’re gonna go through some growing pains here, but I think the trades were really good, I’ve seen a lot of the players that they traded for, they’re good. Uh, you know, they’re future, they’re not today necessarily all of them, the Candelario kid looks really good right now, but I think they did an excellent job and you know at some point you have to get a sensible payroll, and I think everybody pretty much knew that this was gonna happen or had a chance to happen, in fact, a lot of people were suggesting that it should happen.
So, you cant have it both ways, you can’t be upset when it does happen, so hopefully there’ll be some patience, [with] everybody and like I said, I think Al [Avila] did a good job, [the] scouts did a great job of getting some players in here, some younger players, our farm system is stacked quite a bit better than it was before. To be honest with you, our farm system was not very good [and] now it’s pretty good all of a sudden [and] I spoke with three general managers after the trades, just about different things, and they all brought up the fact that, hey, Al did really well in those trades, he did a great job.So, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
Q. I was gonna say, you’ve known Al for awhile, the fans should have faith in Al for making these right moves and going forward rebuilding this team?
A. “Oh, I don’t think there’s any question about it, I think he did a great job, it’s a very difficult job. You know, when you have to trade your own son, pretty tough ticket you know, so I think he did a great job and I think, you know, he just showed that he’s here to do the job and there’s no sentiment. He’s gotta do what’s best for the Detroit Tiger organization at the time and at this time he did what was best for the Detroit Tiger organization and you know, it doesn’t take as long to turn around a team anymore, because of free agency.
So, if some of these players are good, and these young players that come up here and they start to get pretty darn good, all of a sudden then you can maybe go out and add a free agent to get you over the hump. If you looked at what the [Chicago] Cubs did, they got the young players come in but at the same time, when it came time they thought they could win, they went out and signed veteran free agent pitchers, Jon Lester, [John] Lackey, you know, so it’s not as difficult as it used to be.”
While Leyland was happy to talk about anything but himself, this was his induction ceremony and it could serve a precursor to an even bigger Hall of Fame calling in the future.
Q. Pudge [Ivan Rodriguez], when he got inducted into the [Baseball] Hall of Fame, said he hopes that you’re the next one in. So, we’re at the Michigan Hall of Fame today, how long are we gonna have to wait to get you into Cooperstown?
A. “Well, we’ll see about that, that’s up to somebody else to decide. If it happens, that would be great, if it doesn’t I’m very satisfied with my career. It is what it is and people can look at it however they want to but, you know, I’m at peace with myself about my career and to think that I was a backup catcher at Double-A and managed some of the greatest players to ever play and win a World Series and American League Pennants, I’ll take it. It’s up to somebody else to decide whether I’m good enough or not.”
Ever the humble, lovable skipper that oversaw almost a decade of baseball captivate the entire state. Many of us certainly miss Jim Leyland and just like him, we’ll be watching from afar, hoping Verlander can finally get that ring he tried so hard to bring to Detroit.