Detroit Tigers: Prior to Jim Leyland, They Weren't Relevant

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Detroit Tigers: Prior to Jim Leyland, They Weren't Relevant
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They each took their turns, none lasting more than three years, sometimes less than a full season. Each had, in his own mind, a fantasy that he could be the man who would bring relevance back to baseball in Detroit.

George “Sparky” Anderson left the Tigers after the 1995 season, the organization a shambles and the talent as thin as onion skin. Sparky wasn’t getting any help from the scouting guys as he steered the Tigers through the first half of the 1990s before retiring. The decision makers kept rolling the dice on draft day and those dice kept coming up snake eyes. By ’95, the Tigers’ farm system was bereft of Grade A, big league talent.

So it was for the 10 years after Sparky left that the Tigers shuffled managers in and out of town. There was a revolving door at Metro Airport for the baseball skippers.

Sparky managed in Detroit for almost 17 full seasons. He was Detroit baseball every bit as those named Whitaker, Trammell, Gibson, Morris and Parrish.

But after 1995, Sparky was gone and the brass upstairs had a devil of a time finding a suitable replacement. It wasn’t ever an easy task leading the big league impostors that management let wear Tigers uniforms in those days, but ultimately you’re judged on wins and losses, and Tigers managers post-Sparky had a lot more losses.

Finding a replacement for Sparky as manager was Randy Smith’s first task after being named general manager in December 1995. At his introductory presser, I asked Smith cold: did the next Tigers manager need to have big league experience?

Smith, tanned and looking very much the California from where he came, pursed his lips and paused.

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“No,” he said, drawing the word out. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a prerequisite.”

It wasn’t. Smith hired Buddy Bell, a decent ballplayer in his day, but with zero, zilch, nada big league managing experience.

Bell’s first season as Tigers manager was a disaster. Bedeviled by the shockingly bad pitchers he was provided, Bell led the Tigers to a 53-109 record in 1996. The team ERA was 6.38. It’s amazing the Tigers won even 53 games.

Bell lasted until the end of August, 1998. One of those hurried press conferences was called, where it was revealed that Bell had been given the ziggy—that Detroit word for coaches being fired—and that one of his coaches, Larry Parrish, was being elevated to manager.

Parrish was another decent big league ballplayer who had zero, zilch, nada managing experience at the major league level. But Parrish would be manager, saddled with that caveat title of “interim,” sports speak for “until we find someone better.”

The Tigers didn’t find anyone better, apparently, because Parrish was asked to come back and manage for 1999.

After an underwhelming year, the Tigers decided they needed to find someone better after all, and dumped Parrish to bring in former Milwaukee skipper Phil Garner.

Garner’s nickname from his playing days with the Oakland A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates was “Scrap Iron,” for his gritty play and tendency to play with his uniform dirty all the time.

Garner had done an OK job in Milwaukee, but he was hardly a blue chip prospect when he arrived in Detroit in 2000, the first year of Comerica Park.

Garner lasted two seasons and the first week of a third, when the new team president decided to sack his GM and manager on the same day.

The president, Dave Dombrowski, hired just five months earlier, gave both GM Smith and manager Garner the ziggy at the same time, booting them both out the door with the Tigers drowning in mediocrity.

Dombrowski named bench coach Luis Pujols the new (interim) manager. The Tigers were going backwards, it seemed. Pujols not only had no previous big league managing experience, he hadn’t even been a decent player.

Pujols finished an excruciating 55-106 season before Dombrowski had seen enough and turned a legendary player into a sacrificial lamb.

Dombrowski canned Pujols and turned the keys of his Edsel over to Alan Trammell, who had the requisite NONE next to the line that said Previous Big League Managing Experience.

But at least Trammell had been a good player.

Alan Trammell had no chance of winning with the sorry excuse for a roster that he had been provided. His hiring, and subsequent naming of Kirk Gibson as bench coach, was a public relations stunt, and no more—designed to attempt to distract the fans from the disgraceful baseball being played.

Trammell lasted three seasons, the first of which was 2003’s 43-119 debacle.

When I asked Randy Smith back in 1995 if previous big league managing experience was crucial to becoming Tigers skipper, I had no idea that the answer would be no for the next decade.

After Sparky hung up his spikes and put away his pipe in 1995, the Tigers went from Buddy Bell to Larry Parrish to Phil Garner to Luis Pujols to Alan Trammell. The Not-So-Fab Five.

Prior to Jim Leyland’s arrival seven years ago, Tigers baseball was wandering aimlessly, devoid of a personality, without relevance. They had fallen behind even the Pistons in terms of buzz.

Leyland, hired by Dombrowski in October 2005, definitely had big league managing experience, though his last taste of it was in 1999, when he did an admittedly poor job in his one year in Colorado.

Six years off rejuvenated him, and Leyland’s relationship with Dombrowski (they won a World Series together in Florida in 1997) didn’t hurt, either. So Leyland took the job, a job which had been a graveyard for managers since 1995.

In the Jim Leyland Era, the Tigers have won two division titles, appeared in three postseasons, and won two league pennants. Yet his approval rating seems to bob around the 50 percent mark; you either love him or you hate him.

That’s the price of relevance. The only worse thing than being talked about is not being talked about, a noted wordsmith once said. If you took the fans’ venom for the Not-So-Fab Five and combined it, it still wouldn’t equal that which is heaped on Leyland on a daily basis.

The price of relevance.

Whether you like him or not, Leyland will be back, managing the Tigers in 2013. It will be his eighth year at the helm in Detroit. Only Sparky Anderson and Hughie Jennings have managed the Tigers longer than that in franchise history.

Leyland hasn’t delivered a World Series championship yet, but people are talking about the Tigers like never before. Certainly more than they talked about them in the decade prior to his hiring.

The Tigers are relevant, and have been since 2006. So do with that what you will.

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