It's a short hike from the hotel where he spends his nights to the ballpark where he spends his days. He likes to walk to work. Driving six blocks would be an extravagance, and that's something his father, the original Jim Leyland, couldn't abide. His dad was more like the people Leyland passes on the street than like the ones he manages. Leyland's job is to change that, to turn wealthy ballplayers into common men, sweating together on the swing shift.
For 46 years, Old Man Leyland got up and went to the glass factory, rising to foreman. He was alternately simple and complex, depending on the angle. He taught his children to love family, to cherish time together. He could also demand an unattainable perfection, sending his progeny out into the world chasing something that didn't exist. Every member of these surprising Tigers, who have gone from perennial cellar dwellers to a playoff team, would recognize him.
"He never let you be satisfied," Leyland says. "Oh, it pissed me off. We were two of a kind. I competed my ass off, and he'd be on me that it wasn't enough. So we'd butt heads. But we were best friends. He was tough, but he was fair."
Getting closer to the stadium, Leyland steps over a puddle. He doesn't do it gingerly. This is a man accustomed to the elements. He has seen every storm you could imagine since leaving Perrysburg, Ohio, a small town an hour south of Detroit. He won a ring. He flamed out. Went to the top, then to the bottom, and was shaped by both. But no matter how far he traveled, he never really left that place behind. He carried it with him, the words of a demanding father reminding him what to be and what not to be. Now, nearer the end of his career than the beginning, he has come back home.
A few blocks away, a beat cop leans out his window.
"Hey, boss," the cop says.
Leyland pauses. He likes this. The real stuff.
The cop opens the door, and they stride toward each other. The men in blue, like many in Detroit, have fallen in love with Leyland's Tigers. They surely see something of themselves in the working-class manager.
"Hey," Leyland yells across the street. "What's up?"
"Keep up the good work," the cop says.
"You, too," he says.
"He was tough to deal with," Thomas Leyland says. "You didn't get a lot of affirmation. 'You got a B; it could have been an A.' "
The man was intense; he once got so excited when Jim kicked a game-winning field goal in high school that he had a mild heart attack. The senior Jim Leyland loved sports and toughness, and at the intersection of the two, he found his son Jim. Dad would drill ground balls in the yard. The object, really, was not to lose any teeth. But he quickly found that young Jim could take whatever he'd dish out. So, he never stopped dishing.
The voice stayed in his ear. Through the minors, first as a failed player and then as a no-name skipper, Jim Leyland lived like a monk, determined to be something. From Florida to Iowa to every one-horse town in between, always traveling light. A man trying to prove himself can't afford to be slowed down. Family would visit the apartments he called home and find a few pieces of furniture and a coffee pot. Mom would try to cook some meals, if she could scrounge up pans. Even his brother, the priest, shook his head at the spartan surroundings.
Everything Leyland did was to make it, and he'd been raised to think there was no such thing as making it. Stuck in the middle of this unhealthy equation, even when he got to the big leagues, he managed on edge, never far from an irrational rage. Sometimes, he'd get so angry he'd take all his clothes off, tossing each item in disgust. "Sort of like a cornered badger," says Andy Van Slyke, a Tigers coach who played for Leyland in Pittsburgh. "They say when a wolverine is cornered is when they're the most dangerous. Real intense and ready to fight."
And when Leyland did get to the top of his profession, it wasn't enough. In 1988, Leyland was named Co-Manager of the Year for his work with the Pirates. Mom cheered. Dad? He made sure to point out it was only Co-Manager of the Year.
"He was a competitive baseball player himself, a semi-pro, and I think he was a frustrated baseball player because he hurt his shoulder," Jim Leyland says. "So, I think he took that out on me."
Dad taught him the simple things, like doing a day's work for a day's pay. He taught the importance of remembering where you come from. That's why he loved New Year's Eve. He loved all holidays, but this was his favorite. Like his own father had done, Old Man Leyland got the boys in the house together. Each held a piece of bread and coal. They walked out the back door at midnight, then in through the front, presenting the bread and coal as gifts to the women. It was a way of offering prayers for a prosperous new year, for food and warmth.
They met every year at midnight, year after year, until they looked up to find it was Dec. 31, 1988. Time goes so fast. Leyland was with the Pirates then. It was just a few months after the co-manager jab. Dad's health had failed. He was in his 80s, and arthritis kept him bed-ridden. The doctors knew he didn't have long. He certainly couldn't walk around the house.
So, his son Jim, the one he'd pushed and prodded and pissed off, picked his father up, bread and coal in hand. With the help of another brother, Jim carried the old man, tears rolling from his eyes.
Less than a month later, James A. Leyland was gone.
The house was quiet suddenly. Dad's big personality was a memory, just like his trademark whistling. The place filled up with friends, family and mourners, but every so often, Jim would sneak away, alone. "He took it pretty hard," Thomas Leyland remembers.
Jim Leyland went back to work. Two years later, he won Manager of the Year again. This time, it was all his own. He thought of his father's words.
A few seasons after that, on the eve of his ultimate validation, a World Series title, he was still thinking of the past, letting a Miami newspaperman briefly into his head. His dad's words still burned. "You know what I wanted to do with that trophy?" Leyland said then. "I wanted to go to the tomb site and tell my dad, 'It ain't co-manager this time.' "
Just when you'd think you have him figured out, though, Jim Leyland could surprise you. His dad was like that. Old Man Leyland loved to decorate. He had an artistic sensibility most never saw. Once, he took out the living room window to fit in a humongous Christmas tree.Jim learned more than toughness from his father. He learned family was everything. He learned to whistle by listening to his dad. They shared a whimsical side.
When the Pirates went to Houston, Jim would hit golf balls off an upper-floor balcony. Van Slyke would be down in the adjacent open field, retrieving them."He'd just pound them into the night, over the rail," says Rich Donnelly, the Dodgers' third-base coach and a lifelong friend of Leyland's. "Andy's catching them. His Gold Glove center fielder in the middle of the night, shagging golf balls."
No matter what, Leyland stayed positive when things were bad, negative when things were good. Classic workingman stuff: believing life will get better when the money's tight, knowing that no run of good cards lasts forever. That was his ethos. He and Donnelly were playing golf in San Diego once, and Leyland hit a ball over a hill, out of sight. "It'll be all right," he said. When they found it, the ball was on the balcony of a course-side condominium. He had the owner drop it to him.
"He laid it down and took a 6," Donnelly says. " 'I told you it was all right.' 'All right? It landed in a ---damn condo. They had it on the balcony.' He thrives on bad things happening. In the woods, scrambling, all of a sudden, we'll get to the green, and he'll battle back and make a bogey. He's always battling back. He has done it his whole life."
These different parts of Leyland, the way he always knows just what to say, appear to be a byproduct of a blue-collar upbringing. He says with pride that he learned how to manage folks from watching his dad, the foreman, be both a boss and a friend. That's where it gets complicated. Donnelly calls him a "master" at group dynamics. His own brother wonders if everything Leyland does is part of a plan designed to win baseball games. Leyland himself has said that he doesn't like to talk strategy because he doesn't want to appear smart.
So, the gruffer he sounds, the more he grumbles and lights up a cowboy killer and says "pretty good" when asked how he feels about a walk-off homer, the more you think that it might be an elaborate construct. There's a twinkle in his eye when he talks, like he might not be a crusty codger, just a character actor playing one. Could he be more Phil Jackson than Earl Weaver? But then he stabs another piece of meat, holding his fork askew, thumb on top. The moment's passed, and you're left wondering: Was that twinkle all in my head?
Thomas Leyland smiles in the foyer of the parish house. He's fascinated by his younger brother. Is he simple or incredibly complex?
"I'm not sure myself," he says.
One thing he is sure of. When Leyland finally won the 1997 World Series with the Florida Marlins, after so many heartbreakers in Pittsburgh, something happened. Winning it all seemed to silence the voice.
"After he won the World Series, I think he changed after that," Thomas Leyland says. "He's definitely mellowed. I suppose having his own children, he's very close to the kids; I suppose it changed his perspective."
Leyland had finally made it, by anyone's definition. He'd been validated. Those spartan apartments became another funny story to tell. In 1999, after the Marlins' infamous fire sale, he moved on to the Colorado Rockies for a lot of money. Everything was perfect, right?
No. He took things for granted, he said, spoiled by his veteran-laden squad in Florida. In Colorado, he let guys be late. He didn't connect. At the end of a 90-loss season, he quit. Everything had caught up with him. All those years. All that real life put on hold for a game.
"The one thing that is totally unacceptable to him is going through the motions," Van Slyke says. "He can smell that like a shark can smell blood in the water. He became the thing he loathed most in baseball."
Leyland went home. The candle, burning at both ends for so many years, had gone out. Six years, he waited. He raised his son and daughter, got to spend time with his wife, Katie. He took his children back to Perrysburg for New Year's Eve, his son making that familiar walk with the coal and bread.
He parented differently than his old man. He showed the same love, the same toughness, but he added affirmation. Took his father's method and improved it. The tumbling his daughter does in competitive cheerleading worries him; his own dad probably would have asked why she didn't push it harder.
"I try to gear it down," he says, "because I remember what I went through. Even though it was good for me, I don't know that it would be good for my son."
Finally, he wanted back in. He tried to get the Phillies job but was denied. That surprised him. He'd done a lot of damage to his reputation.
Then, in October 2005, the Tigers called.
For years, he'd replayed the Colorado debacle. He knew what he'd do differently should he get a chance. First, he'd connect. The players came in for meetings, and he learned about them, found things they had in common. When he discovered pitcher Nate Robertson's father had been a stern career soldier, Leyland told the kid about his Old Man.
"I think I tiptoed into Colorado," he says, "and in Detroit, I ran in."
As they always do, the players sniffed around the new skipper for signs of phoniness. They discovered early that the man whistling through their clubhouse was real. During spring training, Kirby Puckett died. Leyland called the Tigers together. Time for a life lesson. He told them that Puckett had been a great teammate and, if they wanted to honor his memory, to go home that night and think about what would make each of them a better teammate.
"As he was saying that, he broke down in tears and had to stop and walk away," third baseman Brandon Inge says. "This guy right here didn't even know Kirby Puckett very well and is going to break down over him because he meant so much to the game, then you know he's gonna care about every one of us in the clubhouse. That right there was the moment everybody in the clubhouse was like, 'Wow, we'll play to our death for this guy.' "
If that move was descended from the sensitive side of Old Man Leyland, the fiery side reared its head not long after. Star catcher Pudge Rodriguez got into a tiff with a coach. In front of the entire team, Leyland made it clear what would and wouldn't be tolerated.
"That showed us that nobody is bigger than this team," reliever Todd Jones says. "It really set the tone so it never had to be addressed a bunch of different ways again. Because he did that right on the one guy he had to do it. Not that [Pudge] was a problem, but if he'll do it to him, he'll do it to us."
Simple or complex? Didn't matter. Both moments worked. By May 15, the Tigers were 24-13, one game back. Something was happening.
"He was trying to scratch and claw as many games as he could early," Jones says, "and we got a spark and took off. It started to feed itself and everybody was like, 'Hail Leyland.' "
The players noticed a changed attitude from past managers. Leyland's friends noticed something different, too. He didn't take off all his clothes in a childish fit. On an off day, he met his sister and brothers at their late parents' home in Perrysburg and, to their shock, was positive about his team. When Sean Casey got thrown out at first by the left fielder 5-7-3 after not hustling, Van Slyke practically swallowed his bubble gum when Leyland went over and cracked a joke.
"He hasn't really flown off the handle this year like he did when I was playing for him," Van Slyke says. "I think there have been a couple of times this year when I thought he would blast off, but he's much more encouraging now to the players. He's a lot more positive. He seems to be enjoying his job. The fact that he was away from the game for a long period of time was healthy for him. He seems to have a level of joy, and he's not afraid to express that."
There was a lot to enjoy. His team had caught fire. When the Tigers got to 40 games above .500 by early August, Donnelly picked up the phone.
"Did you order your rings yet?" he cracked.
Here's betting Jim almost ate his cigarette. Old Man Leyland taught him the dangers of getting too full of yourself. Never too high, never too low, remember?
"Are you out of your f------ mind?" his friend remembers him saying. "I've got three guys on my team who can't name two teams in our division."
Three weeks later, no one was joking about rings. The Tigers couldn't hit and the lead shrank and they were in a fight for their playoff lives. So why was Jim Leyland smiling? Why was he walking into the clubhouse after a tough loss to Minnesota, with Johan Santana on tap the next day and bellowing, "I don't give a s--- who's pitching tomorrow, we're going to the playoffs."
And there, pacing back and forth, was Jim Leyland.
He wouldn't go under the roof. Rain couldn't change the way he did things. Not after 61 years. Forget rain. He seemed defiant. He seemed to enjoy the misery of watching a team limp to the playoffs in a monsoon. Screw losing streaks. Forget the silly stuff. Every now and again, he'd climb the dugout steps to get a better look.
"He's a trail boss," Donnelly says. "He'll take it through the snow, through the drought, through the flood. He loves it. He couldn't on a smooth trail. He likes potholes. He likes floods. Gil Favor. He's gonna drive that herd."
No, a few smiles don't make him a teddy bear. He has never given up his obsession with the game. That's wired into his DNA. Colorado was an anomaly. Some nights he never leaves the ballpark. "I talked to Katie yesterday," Thomas Leyland says, "and she said he doesn't sleep. He goes through coffee and cigarettes."
That's the point, really. He hasn't changed as much as he has evolved. Being encouraging doesn't mean he's suddenly Dr. Phil. Most things his father taught him still seem to be part of his daily life. Some, though, are unhealthy. As he once told a team before the start of a season, "If you like something I say, put it in your pocket. If you don't like something, throw it away."
Over the years, Leyland seems to have figured out how to do that himself. Both the things he kept and the things he tossed have made him the manager he is today. He has taken the best of the old man and left the rest. Isn't that what parents want for their children? Something better?
Leyland probably wouldn't admit to taking some philosophical journey. He'd probably call it silly stuff, a bunch of hooey to ignore as he's walking to work, an actual journey and not a metaphysical one, crossing Adams Street, the ballpark in sight now. And, wouldn't you know it, that same cop drives by. This time, he rolls down the window. Just two workingmen talking.
"Keep up the good work," he yells again. "Let 'em go."
"We're going for it," Leyland says.
The manager keeps on, past the front gate, down to the team office on Montcalm Avenue. A lot of living has taken him to this point, a father's son trying to win another championship. That's all right. He was born for it. Jim Leyland reaches the door, and he begins to whistle.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.