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Archive for Saturday, September 23, 2006

Keegan: Leyland gives off good vibe

September 23, 2006

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— Sometimes, it's difficult to measure a major-league manager's influence. Generally, those who manage rosters rich in pitching look smart. Those who must take the baseball out of the hand of one punching bag who should be in Triple A and hand it to another who should be in retirement look stupid.

The good ones do make a difference.

Tommy Lasorda would sit in his office before games, alternately cracking jokes and griping about a lousy player who somehow managed to make it to the big leagues. And then one of his players would walk through his office door, either emotionally shot or physically feeling like doing anything but playing a baseball game. Or both.

Lasorda, who turned 79 Friday, would get loud and spirited about the wonders of that player's talent, and the erstwhile hangdog player would leave with a livelier gait, feeling a lot better about himself. It mattered neither how corny the delivery, nor how many times the player had heard the same spiel sent a teammate's way. It worked.

Lasorda once basically turned around what had been a losing career with just such a pep talk delivered to journeyman pitcher Mike Morgan as the two men stood elbow-to-elbow in the bathroom. Morgan traced his newfound confidence to the words of the Porcelain Preacher and went on to have a career year.

Lasorda's in the Hall of Fame for just such psych jobs. If his office was an Italian restaurant after games, it was a shrink's couch before them.

Detroit Tigers skipper Jim Leyland, at Kauffman Stadium on Friday night for the opener of a three-game series against the Royals, will be enshrined in Cooperstown. He was magnificent in Pittsburgh, won a World Series with the Florida Marlins in 1997, and now this. The Tigers have eight games remaining and could clinch a playoff spot this weekend. They defeated the Royals, 7-3, Friday and pumped their AL Central lead over the Minnesota Twins to 11â2 games.

"He's unbelievable," Lawrence High graduate and Tigers reserve Kevin Hooper said of Leyland. "He's such a good motivator. He keeps everybody's head up."

Leyland's motivational methods are more subtle than Lasorda's, but he knows the key to bringing the best out of ballplayers is to make them feel good about themselves. It's no different than in most businesses, really. Bombarding employees with negative thoughts that keep them lying awake at night, wondering where it all went wrong, hinders productivity a great deal more than it enhances it.

Motivating by fear can be an effective way to get the most out of football players, but it doesn't work in baseball.

And then there is Leyland's tactical prowess. He's a master at getting the batter-pitcher matchups he wants, an advantage greatly diluted by September's limitless supply of relievers and pinch hitters. That's one reason he's abhors the expansion of rosters for the final month.

"I don't like that you play by certain rules five months of the season, then by different rules in the biggest month," said Leyland, whose Tigers are 9-11 this month.

The rosters revert to 25 men in October, and Leyland, back in the game after a six-year respite, will be in the middle of it again.

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