VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – “My new favorite ballplayer is Nick Castellanos (Detroit Tigers outfield prospect) — I just found out his father is a lung surgeon.” — Manager Jim Leyland
Jim Leyland spanked his box of Marlboros and slid a ciggy out as he motioned to MAS to have a seat beside him in the Tigers dugout.
After he slapped down on the wooden bench indicating where MAS should plant his tush, Leyland quickly and deftly popped a butt between his lips.
“Hope you don’t mind if I smoke,” said Leyland.
I stammered while vacillating between politely telling him I would rather he didn’t (MAS abhors smoking in his presence) and meekly saying ‘Nah, go right ahead,” so as not to lose a one-on-one interview.
All MAS could get out was “Well, er, ah . . . ” before Leyland cut me off in mid-mumble.
“Too bad, if you do,” he said with a mischievous smile that meant “I’m in charge of this particular situation and I’m having one no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel”.
Leyland knows he holds the trump card — for better or worse.
Therein lies Jim’s predicament. Anyone who follows MLB closely knows the fidgety Leyland smokes too darn much, often sneaking into the dugout runway in between innings to puff away, turning it into a hazy tunnel of smoke.
But, hey, every guy’s got his vices, I suppose — though not all of them often cause lung cancer.
But the 68-year old Leyland will take his chances, since the caffeine in the coffee he consumes by the gallon isn’t enough to take the managerial tension-induced edge off him.
“How’s your health anyway, Jimmy?” a suddenly emboldened MAS asked Leyland. “A lot of people are worried about you, the way you smoke like a chimney.”
“My health’s good, no bad signs,” Jimmy said with a chuckle of appreciation that at least some people cared about his well-being.
“I can do jumping jacks, I can hit fungoes, and throw batting practice.”
In other words, if you’re worried over Jim Leyland’s nic fits, your well-meant concern is not needed — for now, anyway.
Despite his one-to-two packs a day habit, the ever-trim Leyland is a still lean, mean managing machine.
Leyland-skippered teams have captured a World Series crown (Florida in 1997) and three league pennants — one with the Marlins and two in Detroit.
His ballclubs have also claimed six division titles, including the Pittsburgh Pirates who won the National League East crown three straight times from 1990-92.
Jimmy has been named Manager of the Year three times.
Only with the Colorado Rockies — a one year stint in 1999 — was he not able to produce a titlist of some sort.
Granted, he has had superstars at his disposal almost every place he’s been in command — see Barry Bonds, Ivan Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera, among others.
But it’s what Jim does with the rest of his available talent — the supporting cast, if you will, that sets Leyland apart.
Mike Diaz, who enjoyed several highly successful years with the then-Lotte Orions when they were based in Kawasaki, played for Leyland in Pittsburgh during the Barry Bonds era before coming to Japan.
“Leyland,” says Diaz, “is the best manager I ever saw at putting his players in the best possible position to succeed, getting the best matchups.”
“And he’s always up-front with people,” added Mike, who belted 39 homers for Lotte in 1989. “Everybody on his ballclub knows their role going in.
“He’s just a down-to-earth, honest guy that everyone respects.”
There was speculation that should Jimmy’s loaded Tigers win the World Series this season (after losing to San Francisco in the 2012 Fall Classic), he would ride off into the managerial sunset with one last title in his saddle bag.
Leyland emphatically denied such rumors to MAS, saying: “I don’t have any plans of doing that.
“I like what I’m doing,” Jim explained. “I really enjoy working with younger players”
“Of course, if we don’t do well, that won’t be my decision,” said Leyland with a chuckle. “But that’s OK, too.”
Detroit is currently doing well enough. The Tigers, as expected, sit atop the American League Central standings.
But many pundits had predicted, only half-jokingly, that they would clinch their division by the All-Star break.
Yet, in late August, pesky Cleveland is still within shouting distance at 5½ games back as of Monday.
Leyland scoffs at any runaway expectations.
“I don’t buy that,” said Jim through pursed lips. “There’s some mentality that because we made it to the Series last year that we’ll win it this season.
“All the divisional races in our league were wide open this year,” continued Leyland. “It’s a privilege just to get to the playoffs.
“You’ve got to work very hard and you have to have a lot of things go right.”
So, worry about Detroit’s failure to dominate early, if you must. And continue to fret for Leyland’s health, if you wish.
But Jim’s not too concerned with either matter.
“We’ve got a good team,” said Jim. “And I feel pretty good, too — knock on wood.
“But they probably wouldn’t want to put my lungs on display at a medical center.”
Meanwhile, Nick Castellanos, just 21, has steadily worked his way up through the Tigers’ minor league system.
Castellanos, who can play both the infield and outfield, is hitting .272 with 15 homers and 68 RBI for Detroit’s Triple A Toledo affiliate this season.
Sooner or later Nick should find a role with the Tigers.
Jim Leyland will then have ample opportunity to get to know Castellanos’ Dad better. Hopefully, the relationship that develops will be strictly personal — and not professional.
Contact Man About Sports at: email@example.com