DETROIT – Of all the places to mess with a central component of the automobile, Tony La Russa and Jim Leyland had to choose the Motor City.
OK, so an explanation is necessary. The managers of the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers, the two teams that will clash in the 2006 World Series beginning here Saturday at 8:20 p.m. ET, are notorious tinkerers, each spelunking for even the slightest in-game advantage. And mixing such personalities with such stakes can be combustible, a hypothetical illustrated rather eloquently by Tigers closer Todd Jones.
"There might not be a wheel after they try and reinvent it all the time," he said.
Square, hexagonal, triangular – all to the choice of the winning manager in their battle of wits. And it will be just that should the first two rounds of the playoffs hold course.
La Russa took an 83-win team comprised of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and a bunch of .240-or-worse-in-the-National League Championship Series hitters to the Fall Classic. The only playoff team with a worse record over its last 50 games than St. Louis was Detroit, which dropped 31 of 50 before taking on the New York Yankees in the first round. The Tigers pummeled the Yankees, then laid an even greater beating on Oakland, sweeping them in four games in the American League Championship Series.
Naturally, the genius labels tossed around every time La Russa and Leyland find success started rolling off tongues again. La Russa, lawyer by trade, manager for 28 years, laughs at the fickle nature of his job.
"If the move works, people think it made sense," La Russa said. "If it doesn't work, you're going to hear you should have done something different."
Neither has heard too many cries in October, least of all to one another. La Russa counts Leyland among his best friends, and they have spoken throughout the postseason, as recently as Friday morning by phone. Leyland's first big-league job was third-base coach for the Chicago White Sox teams that La Russa managed. They kept in touch as La Russa won a World Series in Oakland, as Leyland led the Pittsburgh Pirates to three NLCS, as La Russa took his act to St. Louis, as Leyland won his World Series with the Florida Marlins and flamed out with the Colorado Rockies and, finally, as they reunited, Leyland scouting for the Cardinals before Detroit offered him its job this season.
Not only has Leyland engineered the Tigers' stunning playoff turnaround, he guided the Tigers to their best regular-season finish since 1987 despite a second-half collapse that saw them lose the division on the season's final day when they were swept by the Kansas City Royals.
"Obviously, we were kind of a dud toward the end of the season, and we broke the hearts of (the fans) because we didn't win the division," Leyland said. "The Cardinals – everybody is talking about they struggled toward the end of the season. The last time the Yankees won the World Series, they lost (15) out of the last (18).
"We're for real. We deserve to be here. We're here. I think we've proved that, just as the Cardinals have. I'm very proud of our ballclub."
La Russa did his fair share of futzing around, too. He substituted relievers like they were basketball players. He pinch hit Chris Duncan against left-handed Pedro Feliciano – Duncan was 8 for 47 against lefties – and saw him whack a home run. He relied on So Taguchi and got a 3-for-3 showing.
"By far the most fun time is the postseason, when all you're doing as a coaching staff, you're making decisions to win today, you're not worrying about too far down the road," La Russa said. "I think players, that same urgency. It's the most fun you can have. It never changes. It gets better."
"It's going to be amazing to see the signs on both sides," Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson said. "How everyone's going to hide signs, camouflage signs so they don't get picked up. You may see two or three pitchouts in a row and wonder what's going on. It'll be a cat-and-mouse game.
"Deception is going to be key here, and any little bit that you can do, from who you decide to pinch hit to who you decide to pitch, what starter you put in and then scratch – any way you can go ahead and do it is going to have a little affect on the game."
Funny Granderson should mention that. It was La Russa, after all, who said Darryl Kile was starting Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS against Atlanta, then snuck in Rick Ankiel on the day of the game. Ankiel went all Steve Blass and never regained his control, wrecking a career that looked so promising.
Not that La Russa plans on doing the same thing Saturday. He said rookie Anthony Reyes will start against Detroit Rookie of the Year favorite Justin Verlander, though La Russa does have starter Jason Marquis well-rested after not pitching in the NLCS, when the Cardinals didn't include him on their roster.
Nah, La Russa isn't that hubristic. He'll stick with the in-game fiddling, using his different colored pens to sully his lineup card while his friend – and his enemy simultaneously – does the same 100 feet away in the other dugout.
"I don't think that should be a story," Leyland said, and thankfully so, because there, folks, is irrefutable truth that everything he says isn't gospel.
Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa are a story, and starting Saturday night, they get to show why.