Tigers' passion play

CHICAGO – Jim Leyland is smoking a cigarette.

Wait. No. Every Jim Leyland story starts with him smoking a cigarette. Jim Leyland is not about cigarettes. He is about passion. So let’s try again.

Jim Leyland is standing on the grass at U.S. Cellular Field. He is hitting ground balls around the infield and giving marching orders to his lieutenants, who will pass them along to his Detroit Tigers, who have been the best team in baseball all season. He is taking a break for a minute and talking about why he loves the game, having returned to manage this season after six years away, and why he doesn’t love it, what with all the stress, and when the subject of stress comes up, so, naturally, does the habit he can’t kick.

“See that (bleeping) sign out there,” Leyland said, pointing to the center-field scoreboard. “What does it say? Miller Lite. Here’s my problem. These (bleeping) guys can come out here and drink 20 Miller Lites and hit a pole on the way home. Guy don’t ever get drunk smoking a (bleeping) cigarette.”

Damn. Guess he’s passionate about cigarettes, too.

Which is no surprise, really, considering who Jim Leyland is and what he does. He sweats emotion. He lambastes one minute, loves the next. He cried earlier this year when reflecting on the Tigers’ revival. He yelled a couple weeks prior when the Tigers sported the game’s best record because he thought he saw a hint of laziness. Much like his Marlboro Reds, he somehow blends the coarse with the soothing.

And somehow he has coaxed a World Series contender out of a team that lost 119 games three years ago and 91 last season. The Tigers’ pitching has been the big leagues’ standard, their lineup features six players with at least a dozen home runs and their ability to turn batted balls into outs is unmatched. All due, the players contend, to Leyland’s sense of who to coddle and who to prod.

“He does a good job of making it so if you don’t know, you can’t see it,” Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson said. “Years of experience, I guess.”

OK, little secret. Granderson was actually talking about Leyland’s propensity to hide a cigarette when he’s smoking it. The guy is like David Copperfield.

“I never catch him lighting it,” Granderson said. “I don’t know how he does it. Maybe his hands are consistently hot and he uses his index finger. Or he can suck hard enough to spark it lit.”

Enough with the smokes. This is about Jim Leyland and his passion, or whatever kind of voodoo he summoned to put the Tigers on pace for 107 victories, even after getting three-hit by Jose Contreras in a 5-0 loss to Chicago on Friday.

There is something special with him, and there always has been, from his years in Pittsburgh turning a dormant franchise into a three-time division winner to 1997 when he won the World Series with the Florida Marlins.

The next season, the Marlins purged their 12 highest-paid players and lost 108 games. Leyland leapt to Colorado in 1999, and after a miserable 92-loss season, he quit. He would spend time with his family and go golfing with his son and let his fervor return when it pleased.

Teams wooed Leyland. Every time a manager got fired, his name appeared. Baseball people wondered whether he was too gruff for today’s players, and whether they answered yes or no, it mattered none, because Leyland didn’t want back in, not yet.

Not until Dave Dombrowski called. Dombrowski and Leyland have known each other for 25 years. As the Marlins’ general manager, he brought Leyland to Florida. Dombrowski, having just fired Alan Trammell, sought Leyland to right the Tigers.

“I fill that card out,” Leyland said, pointing to the lineup card, “and hope they do good.”

That’s it?

“That’s it,” Leyland said. “It don’t matter how bad I want it. Doesn’t make a difference. You think I want it more than Ozzie or Gardenhire or Francona or Torre? I don’t want it any more than they do.”

Modesty generally does not come in such an intense bundle. Leyland, boom and bluster, probably believes what he’s saying.

“I don’t buy into it at all, actually,” Dombrowski said. “He’s always a guy who believed the players should be front and center, and that’s one of the things that makes him successful. He does a lot for our organization. When you look at how we’ve changed our organization, he’s been the one to keep things stable.”

That’s the boss talking.

I’ve never done it,” Leyland said. “I was never a player. I’ve never been through this.”

He did win a World Series.

“Players got me the ring,” Leyland said. “I didn’t get it.”

He ruminated some, then offered a final request: “Don’t talk to me about me.”

Players notice this about Leyland. He does not patrol the clubhouse barking like a watchdog. He spends most of the time in his office, kicking back in his chair, spikes on his desk, cracking jokes and reading charts and staring at walls and eating away at the carton of cigarettes he lugs, a Styrofoam cup his makeshift ashtray, blowing smoke only in the literal sense.

“He’s one of those guys who has that presence about him,” said Tigers first baseman Sean Casey, acquired in a trade from Cincinnati two weeks ago. “You see him and respect him instantly.”

With what he’s done in Detroit, it’s difficult not to. Leyland inserted rookie Justin Verlander into the rotation and saw him turn into an ace, kept rookie Joel Zumaya in the bullpen and watched him limit hitters to a .174 average, nurtured Jeremy Bonderman from inconsistent 22-year-old to dominant 23-year-old. He gave Marcus Thames playing time and got 21 home runs in 267 at-bats, believed Carlos Guillen would return from an injury-ravaged season and was rewarded with All-Star-worthy play, massaged Pudge Rodriguez so he wouldn’t feel compelled to take any midseason vacations like last year.

Leyland, quite simply, managed.

“And he’s as good a manager as there is in the game,” Dombrowski said, “when he’s got that passion and burning fire.”

Oh, it’s back. And no matter how hard Jim Leyland tries to hide it, it’s impossible to miss.