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Nightengale: In Final Stand, Leyland Hopes to Lead USA to World Baseball Classic Title

Jim Leyland. Photo: mlb.com

Jim Leyland has worn four major league managerial uniforms, and dozens in the minors, but never one with USA on the front.

Leyland, 72, glanced around a room of reporters Tuesday morning, smirked, and couldn’t help himself.

“A lot of familiar faces in here,’’ he said. “Sorry, you have to look at this one.’’

Leyland, manager of Team USA at the World Baseball Classic, departed the press conference to meet with his players, joined them on the field for a team photo, and was complimented that he looked good back in a uniform again.

“You can’t run a mule,’’ Leyland said, “in the Kentucky Derby.’’

Ahh, just like old times.

It had been nearly four years since Leyland last put on a uniform. He retired from the Detroit Tigers after the 2013 season, managing 3,581 regular-season and postseason games while winning a World Series and two pennants, and now it’s as if he never left.

“I’ve worn a lot of jerseys,’’ Leyland says, “but never one like this. This is special.

“I thought I wouldn’t put on a uniform again.’’

The chance to manage the game’s greatest stars was too overwhelming to resist. Sure, it may not be the Olympics. There are plenty of stars missing like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner aren’t here, either. Yet, there are 18 All-Stars, nine Gold Glove winners, three rookies of the year, two former MVPs, and perhaps one future Hall of Fame manager.

“I’m happy for the guys who want to be here,’’ said Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer, who will start Friday night against Colombia. “This is about people who want to be here, people who want to represent the game, who want to grow the game, and who want to represent their country.’’

And perhaps, more than ever since the WBC’s inception in 2006, the timing is just right.

“Given the timing and circumstances of our country,’’ Archer says, “I think it’s a great opportunity for us temporarily to show that we are united, regardless of the turmoil and the things going on here, and other places in the world. So it’s always been a dream. And what’s going on in the country right now makes it even better. …

“So for this moment of time, for this next two weeks, we’re going to put on this jersey with pride and show we’re diverse, we’re united, and this is what USA is really all about.’’

And perhaps no one is enjoying themselves more than Leyland. He couldn’t keep still this day. He was standing behind the batting cage talking to his coaches one minute, roaming the field with his players the next, chatting with reporters, carrying his fungo bat, and talking shop with Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, who assembled this USA team.

“You look at him, and he’s like a little kid out here,’’ says first base coach Alan Trammell, the former Tigers All-Star shortstop. “But knowing his mind, you know he feels responsible for these players. He has a lot of pride. He wants to win, but he’s also going to make sure no one gets hurt.’’

It was Torre, Leyland’s longtime friend, who first discussed the possibility of Leyland managing back in October 2015, watching the playoffs together. Leyland never hesitated, and for the last 17 months, has been preparing for this day.

The first player that Leyland, who works as a Tigers special assistant, contacted was Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler.

This was a year ago.

“He said, ‘Hey, I would like you to play for our team, but I want you to think about it,’’’ Kinsler recalled. “’You don’t have to give me an answer right now.’ I said, ‘Well, what if I answer you right now? Yes!’’

Just like that, the 2017 USA team was born, congregating on the field for the first time Tuesday at JetBlue Park, while vying to make history.

This is a tournament the USA has never won. It has never even reached the finals, going just 10-10 as Japan won the first two WBCs and the Dominican Republic winning the last one.

Now, more than ever, if this tournament is going to take off and captivate the American audience the way it does international fans, USA needs to have a strong outing. Yes, perhaps even win it.

“The last thing I want to do is put any extra pressure on the players,’’ Leyland says, “because of the fact the USA hasn’t won this thing just yet. We know that. We’re aware of that. But it’s something that will not be in my pre-game talk, to be honest with you.’’

You want to know Leyland’s fiery temperament? Trammell’s favorite story is the infamous portrait of Ty Cobb, a reproduction from a 1920’s picture, which hangs in the Tigers’ managerial office in Lakeland, Fla. The portrait is in pristine condition, except for that tear, just below Cobb’s cheek, covered by scotch tape for the last 40 years.

Guess who did it?

“Jim was so mad one day that he threw his shoe against the wall,’’ Trammell says, “and it bounced off the wall and hit the painting, and tore it. We’ve had to use scotch tape on it ever since.’’

Leyland, confessing he indeed was the culprit Tuesday, said: “I might have been the only person in history to spike Ty Cobb.’’

This is the same guy managing the Pittsburgh Pirates in Atlanta when they were pounded in a game by the Atlanta Braves, and absolutely lost it.

“Jim came in there,” says bullpen coach and longtime friend Rich Donnelly , “and said, “I just want to let you know the cops are coming in here now. They are arresting you guys for impersonating big-league players.’

“And he took off. Walked right out of the ballpark.’’

So now, here is Leyland, managing one final time, still with a burning desire to win, but for a different purpose.

“The best script would be for Jim to go out on top,’’ Trammell says. “It’s what we all want. Win this thing, and everybody goes back to their team healthy.

“What this man has meant for the game, and everything he’s put into it, it would be the perfect ending.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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