It took Jim Leyland but one spring training to realize he would never be, as he put it, the next Yogi Berra.
When he left Perrysburg, Ohio, in the spring of 1964 for his first taste of professional baseball, a Rookie League assignment in the Detroit Tigers’ organization, the one-time catcher admits he was like “every other kid (who is) a big frog in a little pond, a little gullible about the future.
“But it didn’t take me long to figure out at some point I’d be looking for another way of life.”
Well, yes and no.
Leyland didn’t cut it as a player. He knocked around for parts of seven seasons in the minor leagues, never rising above Double-A ball, only once hitting at better than a .240 clip.
Nonetheless, when he doffs his hat on Opening Day 2013 as manager of the Tigers, he will begin his 50th year in professional baseball.
“Yeah, that means something,” Leyland said. “It’s got a nice ring to it. No, I would never have imagined anything like that when I graduated from Perrysburg High School. If somebody had said, ’You’ll still be managing the Detroit Tigers 50 years later,’ I’d have told them they were crazy.”
There have been a lot of stops along the way -- Lakeland, Jamestown, Rocky Mount, Montgomery, Clinton, Evansville, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Miami, Denver, and Detroit -- but Leyland has never forgotten his roots.
He was back Wednesday for the dedication of Jim Leyland Family Field, the baseball complex at the new Perrysburg High. In 1993, school officials put Leyland’s name on the ball diamond at the old high school, but this time was a little different.
Leyland and his family paid for a big chunk of the new facility with a $100,000 donation. He’s not uncomfortable that you know that, but he is a tad uncomfortable that you might think that’s why his name is on it. He’d be just as happy had the field been named for Dave Hall, the P-burg coach for the past 28 years who will be inducted into the Ohio High School Baseball Coaches hall of fame next month.
“I’m thrilled that we can give something back,” Leyland said. “We’re not looking for publicity; it’s just nice to help. This is about the kids having a nice place to play, about Coach Hall, about Perrysburg schools and the community.”
Yet, it’s also about 50 years in baseball.
Leyland says he left Perrysburg with a $400-a-month contract, no bonus, and that he was in the game for 18 years before he earned more than $20,000 in a single season.
That’s all a distant speck in the rear-view mirror these days. Considered among the very best managers in the game -- his four major league teams have won 1,676 games, the 15th highest total of any manager in history and tops among active skippers, and have played in three World Series, winning one -- Leyland’s contracts have been well into seven figures for some time now.
In Perrysburg, though, he’s still just one of the guys. He visited recently for an aunt’s funeral -- Sister M. Johanna Leyland, a Ursuline nun and the last of 16 siblings, died at age 97 during last season’s playoffs -- and for his 50th class reunion, and he shook many of the same hands and kissed a lot of the same cheeks Wednesday as 200-plus people filled the school cafeteria for a stadium dedication party.
Leyland’s wife, Katie, was at his side and the crowd was dotted by folks whose last name is or once was Leyland.
“It’s a big family and we’ve been around here for a long time,” Leyland said. “This is a way for Katie and me, for our son Patrick and our daughter Kellie, to give something back here. So having the word family on the field, yeah, that means a lot.”
That’s about all you’ll get out of a guy who lives a very public life as privately as possible.
Noting that winters seem to fly by, he knows that public life will be on display again soon during a 2013 season that will come with great expectations for the Tigers, the reigning American League champions.
“We’ll be a little more athletic,” he said, not downplaying those hopes. “We’ll be pretty good.”
The 68-year-old Leyland won’t speculate on how much longer he’ll be in the game. His security is his reputation as he works with one-year contracts that allow him to earn far more per inning than he made per month half a century ago.
“I still love it,” he said. “When that fire goes out they won’t have to fire me. I’ll know. And whenever it ends there won’t be any regrets. Fifty years ... it has been a great ride.”