Henning: Can Tigers’ AJ Hinch follow in Sparky’s, Leyland’s footsteps? His task is tougher

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

In a 50-year timeline of Tigers managers personally covered, four rank as bombshell hires:

1. Billy Martin, 1970

2. Sparky Anderson, 1979

3. Jim Leyland, 2005

4. AJ Hinch, 2020

Only because Martin was Martin — a hired gun, a short-term choice, effective for immediate needs but poison for the long haul — is he excluded from a more studied look at the three more recent Tigers managers. They either are, or can be, part of some milestone sports history in Detroit.

And they all invite comparisons as Hinch cranks up for whatever 2021 brings Major League Baseball’s way.

To explain why this exercise focuses on Anderson, Leyland and Hinch:

 A couple of weeks ago it was mentioned here that Hinch’s hiring on Oct. 30 was, in terms of headline dynamite, the biggest Tigers managerial news blast since Anderson was brought aboard, shockingly, to replace Les Moss in June of 1979.

Hinch’s hiring wasn’t quite that explosive, but it was close, given that he was the top free-agent manager on the market and it had looked as if he probably was headed to the White Sox. That all changed when Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns the White Sox, decided he was opting for Tony La Russa, even if La Russa is 76 and hasn’t managed since 2011.

For anyone wondering why Leyland wasn’t included in that earlier Anderson-Hinch analysis — which was based on sheer Richter-scale drama — it was only because Leyland’s hiring 15 years ago wasn’t all that stunning. In fact, it was expected, here anyway, and had been written about since late that summer when it was apparent the Tigers were going to say goodbye to Alan Trammell and hire a new skipper.

Leyland was around for eight years, two World Series, four postseason tickets, and a whole lot of baseball transformation. Detroit became so Tigers-centric that for the first time in an old baseball town’s deep history, the Tigers drew 3 million fans — four times, in fact, during Leyland’s run.

So, there’s the context for three managers’ names.

Correspondingly, each manager inherited a different situation and a distinctly different roster in terms of its timeline for winning. Hinch is taking on a greater gamble, with more initial risk, than either Anderson or Leyland met.

Looking at all three skippers, in order of their hire, here’s how they line up — then and now:

Anderson, 1979-1995

It’s easy, and natural, to romanticize Anderson’s 17 seasons with the Tigers.

He won a World Series. He steered the 1984 team, the town’s last baseball world champion, the guys who in their first 40 games somehow won 35 times.

This gave Anderson World Series rings with two teams in two different leagues and got him a Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown.

No need to embellish Anderson’s time in Detroit, or in Cincinnati. Each stint was a story of steady stewardship that, in the case of the Tigers, put some sheen on an Olde English D brand that already was indelible.

What should also be remembered is those 1980s Tigers probably underperformed. One championship. Two trips to the playoffs. That was it.

It should also be noted Anderson, through no fault of his own, lost 103 games in 1989 and that his winning percentage during those 17 years in Detroit was all of .516. He won 83 games more than he lost — fewer than five games per season, on average.

Which is a great way to illustrate one of baseball’s eternal truisms: You win games with players, not because of managers.

But he had his influence on Detroit and on a sterling baseball decade, no question. And where Anderson’s deep skills, as a manager and as a person, shone brightest were in the years leading up to that dizzying 1984 ride that made the Tigers wire-to-wire champions.

Anderson was brought aboard in 1979 when Jim Campbell, then the Tigers general manager, saw he had a stable of thoroughbred ponies who needed deft training and grooming Les Moss wasn’t, in his mind, going to deliver.

More: When the Tigers had Les, but wanted more in Sparky Anderson

He needed Sparky Anderson. He needed a proven commander. He wanted an authority figure who could teach and lead. And a man who could double as the face of a resurgent, high-profile baseball club.

Anderson was precisely that.

It was Anderson who, maybe most exceptionally, knew how to bring along Kirk Gibson — a complicated talent who another manager might have lost. Anderson delicately, sometimes forcefully, figured out how to pick the lock and unleash Gibson.

The Tigers prospered and conquered.

For one year, anyway.

Where it gets murky with Anderson is that he just as much benefited from a roster Campbell and Bill Lajoie, in particular, handed him. While it’s fair to wonder if the Tigers would have done what they did in ’84 minus Anderson, it’s equally necessary to ask:

Why wasn’t this team better in ensuing years? The roster was still in its prime. But nothing of great magnitude followed.

Anderson had his flaws. One challenge was his ego. For as truly good-hearted as he was, in word and deed, Anderson loved the limelight, the stage, the grandeur of his job. There were times when you half-wondered if they were playing the game for any reason other than to advertise Anderson as skipper.

Remember his old mantra: “It’s my way or the highway.”

Not a lot of managers need, or would choose, to flaunt their primacy. Anderson opted for it, repeatedly.

He ran off a lot of players, probably to the Tigers’ betterment. But, again, if he was so skilled, so transcendent, why wasn’t baseball’s best team from the 1980s involved in more playoffs and World Series showdowns?

Baseball, it seems, is a game that can be helped, but not overwhelmed by, a single person.

Which brings us to …

Leyland, 2006-13

Here was the best manager in modern Tigers annals.

It’s because, based on day-to-day observation, Leyland had the most direct effect on his players and on games. Not only could you not beat him at managing a bullpen — he moved the pieces, didn’t obtain the pieces but moved them — which is the toughest of all jobs for any skipper. And he had an innate baseball gut for making players perform at an optimum level.

That’s enormously difficult during 162-game seasons. Leyland, though, did it, and part of his magic there — different from Anderson — is how he would handle players at random clubhouse moments, greeting them as he walked by with something personal and playful — “Hey, Ingie, baby” or “Hey, Santi, amigo” for, say Brandon Inge or Ramon Santiago — that would light them up like 1,000-watt bulbs.

They played their guts out for this man.

Anderson was good at this, but not as much across the roster as was Leyland.

Leyland was tough and fair, always. And always dead serious about baseball. But he also could cut through the heat and lighten things in a fashion that endeared him to his team.

That’s an incredible balancing act. And yet Leyland handled it in such nimble fashion, steadily, as he did all facets of a job that is taxing and then some, on so many levels, 24 hours a day.

Here’s what Leyland inherited, as opposed to Anderson, and especially Hinch, as AJ sets up shop.

Leyland had a nifty roster heading into 2006 that was more talented than the Tigers players themselves appreciated.

Not until that epic Monday afternoon, April 17, 2006, did the Tigers understand what they had — and who was not about to let them fritter it away.

That was the day, following a 10-2 wipeout against the Indians, that Leyland unloaded a verbal ammo dump in Comerica Park’s clubhouse. He told the players, with nuclear verbiage, that he had had enough losing, and that they better be done with it, also. They weren’t going to show up for games, dress, plod through nine innings, maybe win, maybe lose, while he was skipper.

The clubhouse walls rocked.

And a team that day was forged.

But it went beyond what a manager that afternoon knew he had to do. It went beyond what a manager as seasoned as Leyland knew he could do, effectively, only at that precise moment. Leyland understood moments like that Monday afternoon were rare. It was all a matter of timing that few teams in few years allow a skipper. Try that fire-breathing act too often and it becomes stale, contrived, a movie they’ve seen before, and players will tune it out.

But he had sensed it that day, and had acted, with fury that would put the Tigers into a World Series three years after they lost 119 games.

This is where you see concretely the gift of Leyland’s managerial style. And it wasn’t only a matter of knowing when to turn your tongue into a flamethrower in teaching an underachieving team how to win.

You could see it at other moments from Leyland’s time in Detroit.

Think, specifically, of something he would do that few managers did, or even now, do.

Leyland would bolt to the mound and completely alter a pitcher’s performance.

It might have been Nate Robertson getting behind hitters. It might have been Rick Porcello getting nervous and not trusting his stuff. It might have been Fernando Rodney fiddling with batters he should have been blowing away with his heater and change-up.

Rather than send out the pitching coach, Leyland, at these spontaneous moments, would instead hop out of the dugout, march to the mound, spit some bullets — and the pitcher almost without exception straightened out and got his man, or men.

I’ve never seen a manager do that, never seen a manager who so precisely timed moments when he — the skipper, not the pitching coach — had to be the voice that pulled a pitcher out of a tailspin and calmed down a potentially bad inning.

It happened time after time after time.

He didn’t win a World Series, granted. And that wasn’t Leyland’s fault. That was the frailty of a bullpen, a common Tigers issue, which blew up in the eighth inning of Game 2 in the 2013 American League Championship Series at Boston and kept the Tigers, the better team, from winning that year’s championship.

But a manager — Anderson is proof, as well — is more than his World Series rings. It’s what he does every day, over seasons, during all the tough interludes a team must traverse spanning 162 games, that makes him superior, average, or inferior.

Leyland was superior. Absolutely the best from the modern Tigers era. Period.

Hinch, 2020-?

He has a tougher task than Martin inherited in 1970. And a much more rugged job than either Anderson, or Leyland, absorbed in 1979 and 2005.

Hinch’s team is still building a basement even before the first and second floors take shape.

Oh, the Tigers got a sharpie in Hinch, no question. He was lucky to have had the talent in Houston that made him the hottest of all tickets this fall when new managers were being courted, but the Astros, likewise, were blessed to have had Hinch and his smarts at the helm when they won it all in 2017 and continued to dazzle thereafter.

This guy’s good. And everyone in baseball knows it.

His limits, his inability to affect games when pitchers and hitters decide the crux of what goes on during nine innings, will be explicit in 2021 when he and the Tigers might be lucky to win 75 games. Afterward, he can expect seasons maybe like Anderson had in his first five years in Detroit.

So, why the ballyhoo if Hinch isn’t going to be even a break-even skipper — if, for crying out loud, he’s not going to win nearly as often as La Russa wins in 2021 with the much more talented and mature White Sox?

Because he has the experience and presence and mind to allow the Tigers to win all the games their roster makes possible. Because he has a chance, if his bosses deliver on their recent drafts and if the owner and front office can make good on free-agent help, to steadily win in greater numbers and pilot a team in a rebuild’s infancy to a more secure place as a serious contender.

He has a shot at becoming a manager who, apart from his record, displays excellence that will be respected across two leagues.

That’s not going to happen quickly. Fans who know better probably appreciate the timeline here, while fans who think a manager pulling levers can magically execute any number of hocus-pocus victories, well, they should be introduced to baseball realities — now. Hinch is going to take a pounding, especially early.

Here’s a thought advanced in a column a few weeks ago that bears repeating today:

I’m not sure the Tigers hired a manager as much as a new general manager when they brought aboard Hinch.

Al Avila will be 65 in three years — not necessarily retirement age. But neither is hitting 65 a guarantee he’ll be around when a rebuild with which he’s been charged the past five years will at that time, for better or for worse, be eight years into gestation.

At some point, Avila either retires, or is dismissed. When you have Hinch’s smarts, and his years of apprenticeship already spent in scouting and player development with Arizona and San Diego, you move closer, perhaps, to being considered as a team’s overall commander, and not just its dugout skipper.

A deep, intractable, gut feeling here is that Hinch’s next three years are a prelude to a long — think Anderson or Leyland — stay as Tigers manager. Or, it could be such that he displays the kind of insight and presence that makes Tigers owner Chris Ilitch see him as the front office’s next leader.

I have to believe Ilitch saw potential there during October’s interviews.

To those who say: That notion is premature, or far-fetched, or delusional, here’s the response:

Just wait three years. The landscape at Comerica Park is going to look a lot — a lot — different. An objective and open mind will be Ilitch’s best ally in making Detroit a baseball giant, which is what this town can and should expect.

Something says Hinch is going to be part of the hierarchy here, whether it’s in the manager’s office or on the third floor at Comerica Park.

And then we’ll learn who the next man in charge might be, in the dugout and clubhouse, and where he’ll fit on a Tigers managerial spectrum that is ever-shifting, and forever fascinating.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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