Jim Leyland was in the long and narrow office at Angel Stadium the other day, drawing a fresh one from a red box of Marlboros and tightening it up by tapping it on a red Bic lighter.
A black-and-white photo of Babe Ruth shaking hands with Ted Williams was on a nearby wall. It's signed by Williams but not Ruth. Williams is in Red Sox gray, Ruth in pinstripes. Other than a small round clock and a corkboard with some push pins scattered on it, that's the entire décor – Williams, Ruth and Leyland's gravely observations well into another month of crummy ball.
Leyland said he loved that picture, poking the filter end toward the best two hitters to ever step out of a dugout.
"That's a helluva photo," he said.
Leyland said he used to talk to Williams occasionally, talk leadership, talk hitting, whatever came up. Funny thing, baseball. Williams, the .344 career hitter, was a .429 career manager. Leyland, whose bat wouldn't ever carry him to the big leagues, as a manager has taken two teams to the World Series and won one. Sometimes, Leyland was saying generally, those great players weren't such great teachers, because their view of the game came from a place of uncommon success.
"Obviously," he concluded, "I don't have that problem."
Yes, it can be an unpredictable game and as he spoke Leyland poked his finger through fresh wisps of smoke. In the final days of May, the Detroit Tigers, big stars, big payroll, big expectations, could hardly win a game. The New York Yankees were in last place. So were the Seattle Mariners. Willie Randolph had just survived a meeting with the owners of the disappointing New York Mets, and only barely.
In their places, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Florida Marlins, the Chicago White Sox, the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Houston Astros were showing unexpected life, as were the Minnesota Twins, down their ace and his supposed replacement.
But, and Leyland perked up, "We haven't played worth a (damn) and we're six games out. It's parity. … We're in last place and I feel we're involved. Definitely involved."
So they go, waiting on the hot bat, the precise pitch, the lucky streak. For the Tigers, April was bad and May was worse. But, now they're standing in June. And, about that, they can believe only one thing: Good thing it's not May. That was not a pretty picture.
TEAMS OF MAY:
• Tampa Bay Rays (19-10): Nobody has let the locals in on it yet, but the Rays are spunky on offense and have the most improved pitching staff in the game. Alas, they drew a little more than 12,000 Friday night against the American League Central-leading White Sox and fewer than 11,000 for Wednesday's matinee against the equally hot …
• Texas Rangers (19-10): Want to get your act together? Start with the pitching staff. From April to May, Ron Washington's rotation improved its ERA by nearly two runs and, remarkably, his bullpen improved by more than four runs (6.91 to 2.88). Wouldn't it be interesting if the Josh Hamilton-for-Edinson Volquez trade was a swap of the eventual National League Cy Young for the eventual AL MVP?
• Toronto Blue Jays (20-10): The offense has picked up, but imagine if the Blue Jays had a really productive designated hitter, such as Frank Thomas, who just hit .348 for the month in Oakland (and then, granted, went on the disabled list).
• Houston Astros (17-11): The Big Puma, yes. But check out Carlos Lee, who had 30 RBIs
, and Jose Valverde, who saved 10 games
, one of them after taking a liner off the face.
THEY'RE GLAD IT'S JUNE:
• Seattle Mariners (8-20): This can't be comfortable for GM Billy Bavasi and manager John McLaren. The starting rotation imploded in May.
• The NL West: What a mess. Starting at the top, the Arizona Diamondbacks' (11-17)
offense was unbelievable in April. Turns out, it should have been. The San Francisco Giants (10-17)
, Colorado Rockies (9-19)
and San Diego Padres (12-17)
also had miserable months, and the Los Angeles Dodgers (13-15)
have stopped hitting again.
MONTHLY AWARDS (WITH MAY STATS)
1. Josh Hamilton, Rangers,
.322, 8 HRs, 29 RBIs
2. Carlos Quentin, Chicago White Sox,
.290, 7 HRs, 27 RBIs
3. RED SOX TRIAD:
.301, 6 HRs, 22 RBIs
.300, 7 HRs, 20 RBIs
.318, 8 HRs, 22 RBIs)
1. Dan Uggla, Marlins,
.347, 12 HRs, 26 RBIs
2. Carlos Lee, Astros,
.275, 6 HRs, 30 RBIs
3. Lance Berkman, Astros,
.471, 9 HRs, 22 RBIs
AL CY YOUNG:
1. Scott Kazmir, Rays,
5-1, 1.22 ERA
3. Darrell Rasner, Yankees,
3-1, 1.80 ERA
NL CY YOUNG:
1. Edinson Volquez, Cincinnati Reds, 3-2, 1.63 ERA
2. Todd Wellemeyer, Cardinals, 4-0, 2.19 ERA
3. Tim Hudson, Braves, 4-1, 2.25 ERA
AL ROOKIE PLAYER: David Murphy, Rangers, .280, 4 HRs, 21 RBIs
AL ROOKIE PITCHER: Laffey
NL ROOKIE PLAYER: Blake DeWitt, Los Angeles Dodgers, .322, 5 HRs, 18 RBIs
NL ROOKIE PITCHER: Jorge Campillo, Braves, 2-0, 1.14
AL MANAGER: Joe Maddon, Rays
NL MANAGER: Cecil Cooper, Astros
• The O in Zito: Barry was cast into the bullpen, re-emerged and then, on May 23, beat the Marlins. Zito, on the board!
• Jim Edmonds in San Diego.
• Joba Chamberlain in the eighth inning.
• Brad Wilkerson in Seattle.
• Jacques Jones in Detroit.
• Red Sox's road swagger. Eight games under .500.
• Jim Edmonds in Chicago.
• Joba Chamberlain in the first inning.
• Brad Wilkerson in Toronto.
• Jay Bruce arrives in Cincinnati, has three hits in debut.
• Jacques Jones in Florida.
• Alex Rodriguez comes off the DL, wonders what happened.
• Clayton Kershaw throws hard, snaps off curveballs, looks like a left-handed Doc Gooden.
• Pokey Reese, who wandered off a few years ago, signs a Triple-A contract with Nationals.
• Doug Davis, nice to have you back.
WHY WE WON'T FORGET MAY:
• May 12: Asdrubal Cabrera turns unassisted triple play against Blue Jays.
• May 12: Rays beat Yanks to go six games over .500 for first time ever. Jonny Gomes: "Always, beating the Evil Empire is awesome."
• May 16: Jason Giambi reveals his magic golden thong. By "reveal," I mean, "talks about."
• May 16: Jayson Werth homers three times and drives in eight against Blue Jays.
• May 18: Thought occurs: Shouldn't Junior and Manny be there by now?
• May 19: Jon Lester throws his no-hitter; Manny resists urge to leap into stands and high-five hot dog vendor.
• May 21: This week in baseball: pace-of-game rules. Not considered: too much time, too many commercials, between innings.
• May 23: Zito's W.
• May 26: Randolph meets with Wilpons, trudges back to work.
• May 29: Joe Torre returns to NY, gets security deposit back from Yankee Stadium office.
WHY WE SHOULD TRY:
Rangers pitcher Kason Gabbard is tackled by the Mariners' Richie Sexson after Gobbard threw a pitch close to Sexson in the fourth inning on May 8, 2008.
(AP Photo/Kevin P. Casey)
• Mother's Day: Isringhausen, Gagne have begged out of ninth inning.
• May 16: David Wilder, others, fired by White Sox and under federal investigation, reportedly for skimming signing bonuses to Latin American players.
• May 16: The thong thing.
• May 27: Poor Carlos Guillen.