On Sunday, Jim Leyland called Ron Gardenhire a true professional, in every sense.
Gardenhireentered his three-year tenure as the Detroit Tigers’ manager with patience, Leyland said. He understood his task of leading the toughest part of the rebuild. And he never shied away from facing the brutal reality of the team’s deficiencies.
Gardenhire’s job was far from easy, and the organization didn’t give him much to work with on the field. He knew that coming in when he was hired, on Oct. 20, 2017. Citing health reasons, he retired Saturday at Comerica Park.
Because of Gardenhire’s work over two-plus seasons, the value of the Tigers’ managerial job is well beyond what it was when he was hired — but completing the rebuild is going to take a special individual, according to Leyland. Yet the pieces are now in place for the franchise to soar with the right manager at the helm.
“Let me put it this way,” Leyland, special assistant to general manager Al Avila, told the Free Press on Sunday. “It’s going to be a very pleasant challenge. There’s some talent, there’s more talent coming. We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, without question. This is going to be a real attractive managerial position.”
Leyland has seen this before. In 2006, he took over a 91-loss Tigers team without a sense of direction. They had rising talent — namely Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya — and a few solid veterans. Someone needed to mix everything together.
That person was Leyland. He led the Tigers to a 95-67 record — their best finish since 1987 — a wild-card berth and the 2006 World Series. The Tigers made the playoffs in three more seasons under him, with just one losing record, before he retired after the 2013 season.
“This job, that is an honor to wear that (Old) English ‘D’, there’s no question about that,” Leyland said. “There will be guys waiting in line for this job. Trust me. There’s a lot of hopefuls out there. To get a chance to manage the Detroit Tigers, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
More on the search:
Tigers already have a willing candidate for next manager: Lloyd McClendon
Next manager must build off what Ron Gardenhire started
The Tigers are probably further from title contention than they were when Leyland was hired, but the possibilities remain the same as 14 years ago. They just need a manager to weave all the components together.
The next three years are crucial for the Tigers, perhaps as much as any three-year period in franchise history. Avila’s next hire will be discussed for years to come, and it will either make or break everything he has been working toward. Evaluating as many candidates as possible before a decision will be key.
Leyland has a piece of the formula for this, too.
“The main thing is you have to have energy,” Leyland said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. I think you have to have the energy to go through something like this. But I’m sure Al is going to do a real extensive search and, in his mind, come up with the right guy for what we just got done talking about.”
He isn’t sure which way Avila is going to turn when he makes a hire this offseason, but even if Leyland knew, he wouldn’t say. It’s not his place to speak for Avila. However, he is thankful Avila went with Gardenhire in 2017 to handle this stretch.
Windsor: Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire went out on his own terms
Gardenhire wasn’t always perfect. But he possessed the energy Leyland discussed. He had the fire to change the trajectory of the organization, Leyland believes, at least until his health failed him.
Now it’s time to see whether the next manager can deliver the same energy and finish what his predecessor began.
“He maintained that attitude throughout,” Leyland said. “That’s not easy, but it’s fun when you see the end result. We’re starting to see a few results pretty good. I don’t think we’re that far away, but we still got some steps to take.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.