As baseball takes steps toward removing the now-infamous human element of the sport, “Jim Leyland: A Life in Baseball” reaffirms that there might not be anything more important than blood and guts in baseball.
Leyland, one of the most respected managers in baseball of the past 30 years, is featured in the latest edition of “MLB Network Presents,” and we’re given an incredibly in-depth look at just how important he was to every managing stop he made in The Show.
With stats and analytics-based thinking running rampant across MLB today, the documentary reminds us of just how important it is to manage people — not just players — over the course of a season.
Baseball has always thrived on players and their personalities. But considering that you’re on the road, playing 162 games over an 180-day span, personalities don’t always mesh. Players are more than what they are on the back of their baseball card.
Oh, dated reference. How about: Players are more than what they are on their Baseball Reference page?
In any case, the MLB Network documentary does a great job of reminding baseball fans that the manager isn’t — and shouldn’t be — just a “Yes Man,” forced to play particular lineups and players because the team was built a certain way.
Just take it from Barry Bonds.
I ended up with the right guy for me. It’s hard to explain when you get that lucky as a young ballplayer, to have such a great manager. To really have someone that believed in you, that believed in you as a player and believed in you as a person, never judged you, and that was the type of person I needed. … I loved playing for (my other managers) too, I’m not trying to separate my other managers to Skip Leyland — but I would have went through a brick wall for that man and still would today.
The moonwalkin’, cigarette-smokin’ Leyland was one of the most vivid personalities in the game, even if his overall success doesn’t show it. He did win a World Series in 1997 with the Florida Marlins, and the team would have stayed competitive if not for the front office’s desire to blow the whole thing up, thanks to poor ticket sales and revenue issues.
But Leyland is just a single testament to managers in baseball needing to be more than just stats-driven robots.
Great teams are usually led by a great manager who understands the players on his ballclub. If Leyland is a bit out of date, then look no further than the 2016 World Series.
The analytics-driven Cubs were headed up by Joe Maddon, notorious for how much of a players’ manager he is and has been. The same can be said about Terry Francona, whose personality is beyond infectious.
Stats are great. Everyone knows that advanced stats are king in today’s game and the wave of the future. But we shouldn’t be so quick to say managers don’t do much. Managers get the feel of their club, and oftentimes are the heartbeat of their team.
“The team took on Jim Leyland’s personality,” said retired outfielder Andy Van Slyke.
“Jim loved those players, and when I say loved ’em — loved ’em. But I don’t think sometimes he knew how they loved him back,” said longtime confidant Rich Donnelly. Donnelly coached alongside Leyland for all 10 of Leyland’s seasons with the Pirates, and later with the Marlins in 1997-98 and the Rockies in 1999.
Even if stats departments work overtime to find the next big thing in baseball, it’s up to a manager to make sure that big thing gets a chance to pan out. That’s something that’s getting lost by the wayside, but also something we shouldn’t forget as fans, analysts and supporters of the game.
“MLB Network Presents: Jim Leyland: A Life in Baseball” will air on Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 9 p.m. ET on MLB Network.