Call Jim Leyland the face of these taut playoffs

Tim Brown

ARLINGTON, Texas – If there is a face of these baseball playoffs, one might argue for the bug-eyed closer in Detroit, the bushy-mugged slugger in Milwaukee, the ink-stained rogue in Arizona or the shifty, bewhiskered varmint in St. Louis.

For me, I’ve got the old guy with the simmering eyes over steamed-clam hammocks, creased cheeks, wire-brush mustache and Marlboro lollipop.

In a week that had him waxing erratic on the topics of enchanted iPads, snappy haberdashery, mysterious communiques and heroic journeymen, to cite a few, Jim Leyland covered the extremes of cranky and apologetic, brusque and sentimental.

Rolling up on his 67th birthday, after 20 seasons as a big-league manager and a lifetime of hardball, Leyland led his Detroit Tigers through five punishing games against the New York Yankees, the last over 3½ hours of do-or-die bullpen maneuverings and Bronx angst.

Late Thursday afternoon, Leyland had launched his press conference with the preface, “This will explain why you think I’m so old and grumpy and messed up,” before relaying the contents of a college professor’s zany pitching suggestions.

It arrived, Leyland said, by “telegram.”

Then, in the early hours of Friday, shortly after the Tigers had eliminated the Yankees, he left the division series with the sign-off, “Thank you very much for your patience through the whole thing. I appreciate it very much.”

From the first game of the division series to the eve of the American League Championship Series, he was epic, honest, intelligent Leyland. He was funny, sometimes intentionally. He was protective of his players and organization, always intentionally. He was proud, and a little defensive, and a lot prepared. And he was utterly in love with the game, no matter how much it hurt at the moment, the way he’s always been.

“When you’re as old as I am,” he said while his team celebrated in a room under Yankee Stadium, “you usually see the good side and the bad side. I’ve seen both of them.”

He lugs both, it sometimes seems, on those reedy and bent legs, on those hunched shoulders, in his dour expression. Then he comes back for more.

But, he looks good doing it.

Hours before he’d take the top step for Game 5, Leyland revealed he’d done a little shopping in Midtown Manhattan.

“I wish I had my new suit on for you,” Leyland announced to the press. “It’s a humdinger.”

Rich Donnelly, a long-time coach under Leyland and one of his closest friends, burst into laughter when he read that comment from his home in Ohio.

“His favorite movie is Hoosiers,” Donnelly said. “He stole that line from Hoosiers.”

Yup, Shooter Flatch had a humdinger of a suit, too. And that’s why the corners of Leyland’s mouth, mostly hidden by those solemn ashen whiskers, turned up when he said it. He almost couldn’t help but laugh. Almost.

“He appreciates every game, what he’s doing,” Donnelly said. “He appreciates the players. As he gets older, he appreciates things more than he thought he ever could.

“Look, he’s ready to deal with anything, good or bad, now this isn’t the most important thing on earth. Or in life. At this time, it’s just fun.”

Joe Oks, of Porta Bella on East 42nd Street, sold Leyland two suits this week. One was black, the other gray.

Leyland called the next day and railed at Oks. Not because he didn’t love the suits. He did. But to accuse Oks of giving Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon a better deal.

Halfway through the rant, they were both laughing. They’ve had the same conversation for decades, and it still cracks them up.

“One hundred percent,” Oks said, “he’s really enjoying himself right now. Thursday night I was sitting by the Tigers dugout. After the game he came over and told me how happy he was. You know, I’ve never seen him look this good. I think he’s getting better looking as he gets older.”

That made Oks laugh again, but there might be something to it. Sure, Leyland is tense as a manager. For the 1,588 games that ended well, there’s still the 1,585 that didn’t. For the 1997 World Series championship with the Florida Marlins and the 2006 World Series appearance with the Tigers, there’s the 17 others seasons that fell short.

So he lives every second of every game at the edge of the next play, and the one after it. He disappears into the tunnel to sneak a smoke or three, then reappears with gray wisps escaping his nostrils, as though the fire inside him was more than a throw-away metaphor.

“I love him to death,” Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge(notes) said. “He wants to win so bad. But we don’t want him to have a heart attack.”

To that end, the more veteran Tigers this season have taken it upon themselves to ease Leyland’s tension. They’ve had a better time and drawn their manager into it. When he waves frantically for Inge to move left or right, Inge can be seen pressing his palms toward the ground, as if to say, “OK. I got it.”

“We’ve helped him more this year than anything,” Inge said. “He has this tendency to be high-strung and uptight. He’s finally understanding that nothing works well when you’re all panicky.”

Inge grinned. He really does adore Leyland the man, along with Leyland the manager, along with whatever else Leyland turns into come game time.

It’s a reach to say Leyland has mellowed. But, maybe he’s having a better time of it. Maybe he finds humor in the Western Union wacko. Maybe he’s looked around and seen the good the Tigers are doing for his city’s morale, all that comes with playing for the pennant. The ALCS opens Saturday night in Texas against the Rangers.

“Good atmosphere for the city,” Leyland said of Detroit. “Makes people forget about their troubles with good times with sports. If you can make somebody happy, that’s what the song says, makes somebody happy. I listened to it on the way to the park today.”

Wait for it …

“I have a tape in my car.”

This time, the mustache didn’t even budge.

“Heck,” Donnelly said, “he’s just learned how to use a cell phone in the last year.”

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