What does ex-Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland do now? He’s busy being the nicest golfer ever

Detroit Free Press

It’s been 10 years since Leyland managed the Tigers in an eight-year tenure that included two World Series appearances, three division titles and 700 wins.

LAKELAND, Fla. — A long time ago, I learned an important lesson about conducting an interview as a reporter: You’ve got to go where people live.

In other words, if you want to understand someone, if you want to connect with them, meet them on their ideological turf. Make them comfortable by finding common ground and some familiarity.

When I decided to invite Jim Leyland to play a round of golf and write about his affinity for the game, I did two things. I invited his pal Kirk Gibson, and I brought a pack of cigarettes.

Then, the surprise.

“Gibby can’t make it,” Leyland tells me shortly after he pulls in to the parking lot at Grassland Golf and Country Club. It’s a beautiful morning in early March and we have an early tee time. But Gibson, the former Tigers slugger who’s battling Parkinson’s disease, overdid it with too much activity the previous day.

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It’s my first time at Grasslands, a classic Florida course designed by Jerry Pate and Bob Cupp in 1990 with gentle rises, white sand, plenty of water and generous fairways. Leyland has played the course a few minutes from the Tigers’ spring training complex, so he offers to drive our cart. It’s my first clue about Leyland’s demeanor on the course.

It’s been 10 years since Leyland managed the Tigers in an eight-year tenure that included two World Series appearances, three division titles and 700 wins. He’s 78 but doesn’t look it. He’s still teenager trim and his mind is as agile as ever.

Leyland works for the Tigers as a special assistant to the general manager, but he doesn’t remember me from his managing days and he shouldn’t. I’ve rarely seen him since he retired a decade ago. When he was managing the Tigers, I covered only a few games every year, often on Sundays, when Leyland would regularly sleep in his office, too tired to drive home after a Saturday night game only to turn on his heels and return to the ballpark for pregame morning meetings.

I always liked Leyland, even when he was at his gruffest and grumpiest. He was always fair, usually interesting and informative, and often funny. He never put himself above anyone by putting someone else down, which would have been easy for a longtime baseball man with a World Series ring and a deep baritone that should belong to a no-nonsense sheriff in a John Ford movie.

A sneaking suspicion

Before our round, I offer to get him a cup of coffee, but he declines. I see he already has a Styrofoam cup in the cart’s center console and I assume it’s coffee. But it’s filled with water.

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“It’s for my butts,” he says as I glance at his pack of Marlboro reds. “I don’t like to throw them on the course.”

In the countless times I’ve golfed with smokers, I’ve never seen this before. It’s brilliant, but it’s also something more. It’s my second clue about my round with Leyland.

I pull out my own pack and throw it in my cart cubby.

“You smoke?” Leyland says incredulously. “I was worried I was going to offend you.”

To think Leyland might not smoke while playing golf for hours would have been tantamount to assuming Superman might not wear his red cape while saving the planet.

On the first tee, he hits the ball hard but it draws a little too much and misses the fairway. After his second shot, we drive to my ball. Before I can get out of the cart, he whips out his rangefinder and says, “Let me get you a distance.” He does this the entire round. He’s faster on the draw than Doc Holliday.

By the time we reach the first green, my suspicion is confirmed. Leyland is the most courteous golfer I’ve ever played with.

Fast, but never in a rush

By nature, golf is a selfish sport. You don’t have teammates and you spend a lot of time obsessing about your own game. The only time people care about your golf game is when you pay them to. They’re called caddies.

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But Leyland cares. He’s constantly giving me yardages and encouragement. “You can hit your driver here,” he says. “Be careful, there’s water down there,” he warns me. He hits a ball near the wrong green where someone is putting. He drives up to the green and waits so that he can apologize and hit his ball.

Leyland does all of this while managing his own game. He hits his clubs well, especially his driver, which goes nearly 200 yards. It helps that he’s diligent about stretching his back, and it also helps that he was fitted for his driver, a Callaway Paradym.

Above all, Leyland plays fast. He never rushes, but he never wastes time. He doesn’t take practice swings. He marches to his ball, stands over it and hits. Tee box, fairway, green. Doesn’t matter. We play 18 holes in about 3 hours, 15 minutes.

It reminds me a little of the way he didn’t care for too many dead spots in his meetings with reporters. Too much silence or idle small talk and he would emphatically declare like an auctioneer ready to drop the hammer, “Are there any more baseball questions?”

On that island by yourself

Leyland came to golf later in life.

“I didn’t play till I was in my 40s,” he says. “I mean, I played a little bit before then, but I didn’t really play till I guess I was managing the Pirates (from 1986-96) and I started to play a little bit.

“I was never good when I started. I could hit it a little further than I do now but I could never it real far. And I played with some of my coaches. Once in a while we had a day off on the road.”

He was hooked right away because golf was so different from baseball.

“I liked it so much because there’s nobody to blame but yourself,” he says. “You know, you’re just out there by yourself, you’ve got nobody to blame if you don’t hit the ball right. You got no excuses.

“When you manage, maybe the pitcher had a bad game or we didn’t hit or something. OK. But this? You’re on your own. You’re on that island by yourself. I liked that. I like it a lot. And I like to compete.”

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Leyland remains hooked because it’s a sport he can still play, usually twice a week with a regular group at his home club in Pittsburgh. The most they wager is a $5 Nassau. He also gets in plenty of golf during the winter, which he and wife, Katie, spend at their home in Florida.

Playing with Clinton and the King

One of Leyland’s favorite golf encounters came during the two rounds he got to play with Arnold Palmer. They got to know each other when Leyland managed the Pirates, Palmer’s favorite team while growing up in nearby Latrobe. The played together when Palmer invited him for a round during an All-Star Game week in Texas and another time at Palmer’s club in Latrobe.

During one of these rounds, Palmer gave Leyland some of the best golfing advice. Leyland was upset over a poor shot, so Palmer looked at him and said, “You’re not good enough to get mad.” Leyland never got upset again.

A few years later, Leyland decided he wouldn’t wait for another high-profile invitation. He was managing the Florida Marlins during their World Series championship run in 1997 when he got a bold idea.

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“It was the morning of Game 7,” he said, “and I told Katie, ‘If we’re fortunate enough to win this game, tonight the president will probably call to congratulate us.’ I’m gonna tell him, ‘I appreciate that, but I want to play golf with you.’

“Of course, my wife was all over me saying, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna do it. What’s the difference?’ ”

After the Marlins beat the Cleveland Indians, sure enough President Bill Clinton called. Leyland popped the question and got his wish to play with Clinton during a trip to Florida for a fundraising dinner.

Sylvester Stallone was supposed to join Leyland, Clinton and former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz for a round, but Stallone had to back out because of a delay that conflicted with his daughter’s birthday. Secretary of Commerce William Daley took Sly’s spot.

Leyland and Clinton shared a cart, but the Commander-in-Chief took the wheel.

“He was a pretty good player,” Leyland said. “So it was great.”

What stood out to Leyland the most was the level of security provided by the Secret Service. Every time the cart stopped, a very large agent would run up and stand next to the cart.

“He was big guy,” Leyland said. “So kind of half-jokingly I said, ‘You’re kind of making me nervous, you know?’

“I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘You’ve been cleared to high-five and do whatever you want, but every time the cart stops I will be right behind you.’ It was just interesting. It was a great thrill.”

Another important life lesson tied to golf: It never hurts to ask.

Missing the old skipper

Leyland and I play well. He’s a 17 handicap and I used to be an 8 but nowhere near that now. He shoots 88, I shoot 82. It’s a fun round. I invite him to play again next time he’s in Detroit and I suggest the Tigers should have “Jim Leyland Appreciation Day.”

He laughs at the idea and dismisses it. We talk plenty of baseball during the round and if feels like he could still roll out of bed and win 80 games. I ask if he misses managing.

“No,” he says. “I miss the people. I miss the players. I miss the fans and the writers. But I don’t miss the travel.”

In the 10 years since Leyland managed the Tigers, the team has had two winning seasons and one playoff appearance. It’s clear Leyland is perfectly happy these days when he’s on the golf course. It’s just as clear Tigers fans miss him a lot more than he knows.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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