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Leyland’s rites of spring are a family affair

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

LAKELAND, Fla. – The trigger on Jim Leyland's tear ducts is quick, and he mustered up all he could Saturday morning to keep them from overflowing. He was stepping on a plane to head to his 48th straight spring training. His son Pat walked alongside him.

They had shared breakfast at the Pittsburgh airport. Pat bought. "He had smaller bills," Jim said. They talked about the year ahead, about the team Jim manages, the Detroit Tigers, the one that Pat hopes to someday make. Then Pat went back to the homework for an online course he's taking.

He was all ready to go to the University of Maryland last year until the Tigers drafted him in the eighth round and signed him. And now Pat Leyland is here with his dad, not as the manager's son like the past five years but a uniformed Tiger, the youngest one in camp and among the youngest in any. If he played any other position, Pat would report in March like the rest of the minor leaguers, but teams need extra catchers to handle the volume of pitchers early in spring, and so the 19-year-old gets a treat for the next few weeks.

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Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, right, with his son, Pat, in 2006.
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Family affair

Major league managers whose sons are players in the same organization:

Manager Son Pos.
Jim Leyland, Tigers Pat C
Ron Gardenhire, Twins Toby IF
Jim Tracy, Rockies Mark 1B
Bruce Bochy, Giants Brett P

Major league managers whose sons are players in other organizations:

Manager Son Pos. Team
Don Mattingly, Dodgers Preston OF Indians
John Farrell, Blue Jays Jeremy 3B Pirates
Brad Mills, Astros Beau 1B Indians

It's sweeter for his father. Pat can't understand yet. He never met James Leyland, Jim's dad, who spent 46 years at a glass factory in Ohio and always told Jim he wasn't good enough. He wasn't there to see the fear and horror when Jim and Katie Leyland's first son, Connor, was stillborn. Jim is good enough at sloughing things off that he still can convince Pat that his detached affect isn't masking a geyser of pride welling inside.

"I want him to chase his dream," Jim Leyland said Sunday.

He was sitting behind his desk at Joker Marchant Stadium, inside a spartan office. He lit a Marlboro Red and polished it off in six drags. He's 66 now, though he's looked it for a while now: the sunken cheeks, the graying hair, the perpetual scowl. If you didn't know any better, you might think he was the one who had spent nearly five decades in a factory.

Leyland's father wasn't much for dreams. He pushed Jim to do better but didn't pat him on the back when he did. His well-intended lessons – on every New Year's Eve, the boys in the house offered a piece of bread and coal to the girls, hopeful for a year full of food and comfort – were offset by his judgments. If Leyland hit a home run, his dad wondered why he didn't hit two.

Pat never saw that side of the Leyland gene pool. Jim was critical – constructively. He was supportive – unconditionally. Leyland said Pat is a better ballplayer than he ever was, and Leyland did make it as high as Double-A as a catcher with the Tigers.

Managing suited him better, and Leyland feels a debt to his father for that. The job demands a tough leader, and Leyland's ability to navigate a clubhouse – to bond with old and young, American and Latin American, engendering respect the whole way – is among his greatest assets. Leyland should pass Dick Williams for 18th on the all-time wins list this season, and he's already ahead of a half-dozen more Hall of Fame managers with 1,493 wins. Only Joe McCarthy won more games without playing in the major leagues.

Leyland's 1,518 losses rank 16th, and he has grown to accept them. In the middle of his disastrous one-year stint in Colorado, Leyland fumed after a loss and berated the Rockies, cigarette dangling from his lip. Nobody moved. Ten minutes later, Leyland returned, shirtless this time, another cigarette smoldering, and scolded the Rockies once again. A few minutes later, Leyland stormed out of his office naked, cigarette in tow, of course, and finished his locker-thumping rant.

After Colorado, Leyland spent six years scouting for St. Louis. He watched games in Pittsburgh and made up for lost time with Pat and his daughter, Kellie. The managing itch returned, and Detroit, only 70 miles from his hometown of Perrysburg, Ohio, was the destination.

In his first season back, the Tigers made the World Series. They've struggled with consistency since. Their 2009 meltdown, punctuated by star Miguel Cabrera(notes) showing up hungover for a game the final weekend, was particularly raw. And yet Leyland stood by Cabrera as he went to rehab, and he stood by umpire Jim Joyce when he robbed Armando Galarraga(notes) of a perfect game last year, and it all goes back to one of his father's maxims: Never lose perspective of what you do.

"Couldn't wait to come here today," Leyland said. "Got here at 6 this morning. Got my notes ready for a meeting. Worked out. Took a shower. Got cleaned up. This is what I do. I feel good. I'm into it. I'm certainly not looking to retire.

"I'm not looking to set a record of years managed, either."

It would be nice to manage Pat. Leyland may sneak him into an exhibition game before he heads out with the first round of cuts. Pat's locker is in the far left corner of the clubhouse, sandwiched between other young catchers', and near an exit door. He was busy Sunday marking his new gear with the No. 77, not bothering to concern himself with when dad would send him back with the other kids.

"He's very busy getting his team ready, and that's what he's here for," Pat said. "It's not family bonding time. He's got a big job to do."

Still, they had time to do some accounting of Leyland's career. Pat wanted to know how much of his life Jim had spent at spring training. Leyland estimated two months a year. It added up to eight years in Florida alone. Nearly one-eighth of his life, simply preparing for a season.

Leyland chewed on that thought, leaned back and tugged on a cigarette. He'd always hoped Pat would gravitate to baseball, even though it stole his dad away for months at a time. And it culminates here, everything Leyland tried to do: take his own father's strengths, improve on his flaws and raise a son of whom he's unspeakably proud.

"It's a cool experience," Pat said. "Probably more so for me than him."

If only he knew.