Jim Leyland sees a bit of himself in Detroit Tigers’ AJ Hinch and swagger in the team

Detroit Free Press

Few sports reveal a leader’s influence less than baseball. Oh, it’s easy to second guess the manager when a pitcher is left in one batter too long or pulled one batter too early. And it’s easy to question the order — and makeup — of the day-to-day lineup.

Mostly because we think we can make those decisions, too — and better.

In football, almost no fan thinks he can manage the positioning of the offensive line or where a linebacker is supposed to be pre-snap. But in baseball? Just about everyone knows when it’s time to bunt or when to bring the infield in.

All of which makes it tricky to gauge a manager’s true influence on a baseball team. Sometimes it takes a manager to really see what another manager is doing.

So, I asked Jim Leyland to give his thoughts on the stellar job (even with a three-game losing streak) that AJ Hinch is doing with the Tigers.

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Leyland managed the team from 2006-13 and still works for the club as a special assistant to the front office. And while he doesn’t get back to Detroit often — he lives in Pittsburgh and had just finished a round of golf when I caught up with him recently — he watches plenty.

What does he see?

“They take that field with some swagger,” he said. “They don’t feel like they’re overmatched. At the start of the season, they were tiptoeing around a little bit. But that’s gone. That’s the biggest thing (Hinch) has done.”

It’s no small thing, either. And it started in spring training.

Actually, it started long before, with what Hinch learned managing in Arizona and in Houston, and what he learned not to do. As Leyland said, the hardest part of managing is knowing when to speak up and when to stay quiet.

Sometimes, that’s learned through experience. Sometimes, it’s part of a natural personality. Ideally, it’s both, as it appears to be with Hinch; it’s not for nothing that former teammates and players describe him as a next-level communicator.

Leyland forged his career mining — and tempering — the soul of a baseball player. He possessed a doctorate in human nature.

Fundamentally, he was himself. Always. Whether jauntily walking through the clubhouse in his undies (to the amusement of some of his players) or shoveling runny eggs into his mouth as he lay prone on a couch in the manager’s office during a pregame media session.

He was real. And he leveraged that realness, passing it out in just the right dose. Hinch may be different in tone and temperament, but the authenticity is the same. It’s why he started his time as the Tigers’ skipper by gathering the team in Lakeland, Florida, and explaining his role in the sign-stealing scandal in Houston.

Leyland began his Tigers’ tenure with a letter, written in February 2006, that pumped up expectations and told his guys they were better than they thought, and that he wanted them to carry themselves like the Yankees.

He then backed that up daily, in the clubhouse and the dugout; he sees the same approach in Hinch.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m boasting, but I always tried to be around, but not too much,” he said. “You’ve got to let them know you care and BS once in a while.”

In essence, he said, a manager’s got to love the players. Hinch, he said, does.

“I think he’s done a remarkable job,” Leyland said. “He’s got them playing with a bunch of energy and playing with a lot of confidence, got them believing in themselves. That’s an accomplishment.”

One that’s getting easier to see, at least judging by the Tigers’ record. Though Leyland looks beyond the numbers in the standings.

He’s keen on body language and vibe, on chemistry and confidence — and he loves the way the Tigers take the field.

“Along the way you have to jab them once in a while,” Leyland said.

But?

“You’re smart enough to know that it’s about the players.”

Leyland was consistent in that belief, both on and off the record. He believed that players deserved to know why he did things the way he did.

“You’ve got to have answers,” he said.

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That’s a tact Hinch believes in, too, judging by what he said last December about encouraging players to become more versatile in their roles:

“This is a generation of players that want to know why, and I think they deserve the explanation. Now that I’ve got examples of success stories, I can share that with the players here in Detroit. They’ll understand exactly how much better it makes us if you give me more choices.”

Hinch wasn’t always so forthcoming. Nor did he always anticipate the needs of everyone on his club. He had to learn that some guys needed more prodding than others, that some wanted a text instead of a call, that some required more affirmation.

All of that experience led Hinch to this moment, to this run where, after an 8-19 start in April start, the Tigers have stitched together consecutive winning months for the first time in half a decade. From Leyland’s view, Hinch’s imprint is everywhere, and it looks rather familiar.

“He’s really got (Jonathan) Schoop and Miggy (Cabrera) buying in. That’s not always easy to do. They’ve done a helluva job, encouraging those young players, showing them the ropes. (HInch knew) what they’d bring to the party.”

Like Hinch, Leyland took over the Tigers after a lot of losing seasons. And, like Hinch, he saw potential in a group of players that didn’t see it in themselves.

His 2006 team had more veteran talent. And his team jumped out of the gate and blew away expectations almost immediately.

“We shocked everybody,” he said. “This team has continued to climb the ladder … gradually, day by day. They are fun to watch. They are getting better. You can see a lot of light at the end of this tunnel with this ball club right now.”

What will it take?

“This team isn’t that far away,” he said. “If they make a splash with a free agent or two, with the right additions …”

He stopped himself. He didn’t want to get too carried away. But you could hear the optimism in his voice. And he can hear the growing optimism within the fan base.

It’s been a while. That feeling of sensing a long-dormant franchise beginning to awake. Short of winning a championship, it’s the most enjoyable feeling in team sports.

“Absolutely,” said Leyland, recalling the summer of 2006. “There is a growing buzz again.”

And though it’s always about the talent first, this two-month surge doesn’t happen without Hinch. For Leyland, it’s all as plain as day.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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