Blowing Smoke for Jim Leyland

What I like most about Tiger manager Jim Leyland is that he looks in the face a lot like my grandfather looked in the face. What I’m saying is I miss seeing my grandfather and his face so when I would look into the dugout and see Jim Leyland’s face I often thought of my grandfather. My grandfather never played baseball or took me to Tiger Stadium or came to watch me play in my own baseball games. We didn’t share that kind of connection. It was the face: the eyes, the nose, the mustache. When I looked at Jim Leyland’s face I saw my grandfather. I also liked it that Jim Leyland smoked. My grandfather also smoked, cigars, for years, till the day my cousin came home from the doctor diagnosed with asthma and my grandfather never from that day forward smoked another cigar again. That’s the kind of man my grandfather was, and though I know that Jim Leyland smokes he strikes me as the kind of a man who would quit for the sake of somebody else. I could be wrong about this, just like Jim Leyland often made decisions as a manager that I didn’t always see eye to eye with. But in baseball we all see things that others sometimes don’t. We sometimes want to lay down a bunt when the coach flashing signs green lights a swing, or other situations where after the fact it’s easy to question the skipper’s too-quick hook. I liked it too that Jim Leyland often had food in his mouth—seeds, a sandwich—when he talked post-game to reporters. I liked it too that he wasn’t afraid to call out Barry Bonds on being a princess in a Pirate’s disguise. Of course I wished in this his last season he could’ve used some of those brass knuckle tactics to smack some urgency out of some of his big-money players. But that’s in the past and now that Jim Leyland has stepped down as manager I am pretty sure whoever is brought in next year to take on the Tigers padded lineup card that that person won’t make me think of my grandfather. The face, for one, will likely be too young-looking. And in the eyes, I doubt that there will be that glazy presence of tears. I liked that about Jim Leyland that the tap was quick to turn on, that the voice was quick to crack, that he let the heart speak before the head had time to question, “What will people say or think?” I liked that Jim Leyland didn’t seem to care what other people thought. I liked that he cared about his players first, and the name of the city that the old English D stood for on his cap, and the fans who always came when he built what should have been a kingdom, though in the end we never reached the promised field of dreams. In the end maybe that’s why Jim Leyland maybe wasn’t the right man to take talent built on power and make it a team that, like the city they play for, is made more for speed and spit-shine and grit.

Jim Leyland smoked, I think, because like people who smoke, Jim Leyland had a lot of things burning inside of him that he wanted to say but knew that he couldn’t. People who smoke find comfort in the smoke and the silence that out of their mouths they breathe out. Call it a smoke screen. I think Jim Leyland liked the smoke screen that he could stand behind when he did not want to say what he knew he shouldn’t. At times there were things I wish that Jim Leyland had said, not just to the press or to the fans but to his players. We don’t know what sorts of words were said between Jim Leyland and his players. There seemed to be a lot of good words that were given back and forth between them. What else are friends for? But I wonder what were the words that Jim Leyland wanted to say—say, for example, to Prince Fielder when Prince seemed to be thinking of anything but baseball the last few games of this, Jim Leyland’s last season. I know what words I might have said to Prince Fielder had I known that this was going to be my last season, had I known too that Prince Fielder’s bat was going to be reduced to sawdust. Did Jim Leyland tell Prince Fielder to lock in, to let go of things he couldn’t control? Did he say, Hey Big Guy, show something out there on your face other than complete indifference? Or did he bite his tongue, tuck another cigarette in between his lips, suck back down the words he should’ve said, and blown out what puff of smoke he could not manage to disappear behind?

Smoke on, Skip. I’ll miss your face gazing out from the dugout, the memory of my own grandfather, hair white beneath the cap, like dandelions gone to seed.

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