LAKELAND, Fla. – Yes, the Detroit Tigers' pitchers fielded ground balls Friday morning, first thing out.
No, Jim Leyland didn't first flood the field, as he'd once schemed. But, then, at the time he was in the throes of five E-1's in five October games that may not have lost them the World Series, but didn't give them much of a chance to win, either.
He strode field to field, tapping back pockets with his fungo bat, asking for concentration and effort and generally getting smiles and nods in return.
A frosty, two-club wind blew from the main field here, across the back diamonds. If there was any question as to the last time we'd seen the Tigers and their wily, hunched manager, the late-October weather placed them again in those chilled, damp stadiums in St. Louis and Detroit.
Before the creases had been played out of their new blue windbreakers, they'd jumped on rollers and defended themselves against comebackers and turned and thrown to third base.
"Probably on my behalf," Joel Zumaya said lightly, "after I threw that ball down the third-base line. But, hey, it's good for us."
So they went, with a shrug, holding the trauma of one miserable week against the triumph of 6½ months that preceded it, coming away, all in all, entirely upright and whole.
As he announced, "We will not be a flash in the pan. I can tell you that right now. I don't know if we'll win anything, but we will not be a flash in the pan. We've got a good team. We've got good players, and we've got a good team."
A couple hours before, Rich Donnelly, the Los Angeles Dodgers' third base coach and an old friend of Leyland's, answered his telephone with what loosely could be described as a hello. He wasn't asleep, he said, merely worn thin. He'd been stranded in the Pittsburgh airport since the night before, long enough, he said, to become first-name pals with the cleaning crew and maintenance guys. Jake with the mop, he said with a laugh, takes his coffee with two creams, two sugars.
He'd spoken to Leyland on his way to the airport, which now seemed like weeks ago. They'd wished each other well in camp. They'd see each other in Vero Beach in a few weeks. The usual stuff.
Leyland had carried the World Series result with him, Donnelly said, "For about five minutes."
Besides, he said, "Jim's down if his laundry comes back wrinkled."
And then he's up, fists curled, eyes burning.
So he sat in his tiny office on Friday morning, his uniform never to be whiter this spring, his cap never to be bluer. On his desk, two 8 1/2-by-11 sheets of paper separated his players, roster guys on the left, non-roster on the right.
He was thicker in the face and shoulders than he'd been in October, the ravages of a season and a postseason replaced by regular meals and sleep, along with the daily pleasure of running his two pre-teen children to school and back.
His first season in Detroit resulted in 95 wins out of a viciously competitive division, and playoff victories against the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics. Then those dismal five games against the St. Louis Cardinals.
But, that's that, Leyland said, both with the good and the disappointing.
"We're not going to talk about last year at all," he said, nodding to a clubhouse filling with pitchers and catchers. "They're going to get that message today. We're moving forward. That's going to be a no-no. We're not going to discuss 2006 all spring. We're just not going to do it, and I'm going to ask them not to do it. I know I'm not going to talk about it. This is 2007 and we're moving forward. For one final time, like I said over the winter, you put that in a wonderful memory bank somewhere and at some point, when you're a few years older, and later on you sit back and say that was one heck of an exciting year. And that's the end of that conversation."
He was generally aware that this pitchers fielding practice held some significance, if only to allow a few Tigers fans to slap their foreheads one more time.
Justin Verlander's wayward pickoff in Game 1.
Todd Jones' artfully misplayed grounder in Game 2.
Zumaya's untowardly fling past third in Game 3.
Fernando Rodney's clumsy heave in Game 4.
Verlander's return, beating Brandon Inge to the glove side in Game 5.
All followed by Leyland, still in his spikes, lauding the Cardinals for their play and Tony La Russa for his achievement, and trying not to be too unhappy. He wanted to win. He didn't.
And then, spring, which brought another good team, Gary Sheffield's bat, the same pitching along with, they hope, more Mike Maroth.
He's thought this out. He's seen the near misses emboldened by their nearness. He's seen them pulled apart by their miss.
He just wants them to play well, to stick together, to remember how they got into late October, and not what happened when they got there, unless it helps.
"This is a bold statement but I kind of believe it," he said. "Not kind of believe it. I do believe it. When you've had a good team, you've had some success, I think normally the only thing that hurts you the next year is either injuries or self-destruction. The Minnesota Twins might beat us, because they're very good. The White Sox might beat us. They're very good. Cleveland's good, they might beat us. The Yankees. They all might beat us. But, in reality, none of those guys can keep us from being a good team. They might beat us, but they can't keep us from being a good team. So, the only way that we'll screw this up, in my opinion, is if we self-destruct. Or we have a rash of injuries where you, you know."
The injuries, you get the sense, he would hate, but he could live with. The other …
"Like I said," he said, feeling it now, "not going about your business the way you need to go about it. Listen to how friggin' good you were last year. Taking pats on the back from last year in July of this year. That ain't worth a … . Being such a great story, I mean, that's over. It was wonderful, but, like I said, it's a memory. It's history. So, you know, things within the scheme of the entire organization. You gotta be careful who's signing, who's getting signed. Dave [Dombrowski] has done a wonderful job so far. We're trying to sign our players. All the jealousies, all this stuff that goes into it if you're not careful. I'm a big believer, we won't be destroyed by the opposition. We might be beaten by the opposition, but we won't be destroyed by the opposition. The only way we'll be destroyed is if we destroy ourselves, by not going about it the way you need to go about it. And by thinking it's easier than it is. We got there, it wasn't a fluke. We had good players, we worked hard and we became a team. If we continue to stay a team, with the talent we have, we're good. I think."
So, they got to work fending off implosion. On a back field, a coach picked up a fungo bat and asked for a baseball.
And a pitcher pounded a glove.
- Jim Leyland