Jim Leyland belongs in Cooperstown

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates haven't put one of their own from the modern era into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum since Bill Mazeroski in 2001. It is time for another. Jim Leyland has been nominated for consideration by the Contemporary Baseball Era Committee for managers, executives and umpires. He belongs in Cooperstown.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it," Leyland told me during a recent telephone conversation. "But I'm not worrying about it. If it happens, it happens. It's a great honor just to be nominated."

Leyland should be an easy choice for the 16-person committee, which will announce its vote on Dec. 3 at the winter meetings in Nashville, Tenn. Former managers Cito Gaston, Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella, executives Bill White and the late Hank Peters and umpires Joe West and Ed Montague are the other finalists. A candidate must receive at least 12 of 16 votes to be inducted.

I've said for years Leyland is the best baseball man I have known.

It's Leyland's record as a big league manager, sure. His 1,769 wins rank 18th on the all-time list. He managed four teams and took three to the postseason, finishing in first place six times. He won a pennant in the National League and two in the American League. He won a World Series with the Florida Marlins in 1997. He was Manager of the Year three times.

But it also was Leyland's way with players. I have never seen anything like it. He had just two rules -- show up on time and play hard. His players loved playing for him. I don't know of one who ever said a bad word about him.

That doesn't mean Leyland couldn't be tough when he had to be. Google his profanity-laced tirade with Barry Bonds during spring training in 1991. Bonds, coming off an MVP season in 1990, wasn't happy with his contract and took it out on Bill Virdon, one of Leyland's coaches. Leyland didn't like it and jumped all over Bonds.

"I take full responsibility for that happening," Bonds told the Post-Gazette's Jason Mackey two years ago. "Leyland has every right to do what he did."

Leyland was smart enough not to hold a grudge. Bonds had two more great years for him in 1991 and 1992 before leaving for the San Francisco Giants as a free agent. Leyland has pushed for Bonds -- unsuccessfully -- to make the Hall of Fame.

"I loved him," Leyland said. "We're very close to this day."

I'm convinced Leyland's reaction to Bonds during that dispute was his first big step toward the Hall of Fame. It won Bonds' respect. It won the other players' respect. It won Leyland respect all over baseball.

Leyland said his World Series win with the Marlins was his greatest thrill. No. 2 was Magglio Ordonez's walk-off home run against Oakland in the 2006 American League championship series that put his Detroit Tigers into the World Series. And a really close No. 3?

"Our first division title with the Pirates," Leyland said.

The team clinched in St. Louis on the final Sunday of the 1990 regular season, finishing four games ahead of the New York Mets. A photograph of Bonds and pitcher John Smiley carrying Leyland off the field is one of the iconic photos in Pirates history.

"I'll never forget that celebration," Leyland said. "We had worked so hard and came so far. People had laughed at us."

It was just four years earlier that the Pirates went 1-17 against the Mets in Leyland's first season. That prompted one of his most memorable lines after the Mets won the 1986 World Series:

"The Mets couldn't be that good. We beat 'em once."

It always bothered me that Leyland was criticized for leaving jobs. He was with the Pirates for 11 seasons and left after the 1996 season only after new owner Kevin McClatchy reneged on a promise to spend at least a little money for a competitive team.

"I never wanted to leave," Leyland said. "Pittsburgh was my home. I was able to be at home for half the season. I understand people were [ticked], but why would I want to leave?"

Leyland works for the Tigers in an advisory/scouting role and also works for baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. He also still lives in the Thornburg section of Pittsburgh.

Bob Nutting has made many mistakes as the Pirates owner, but one of his biggest blunders has been not finding a way to bring Leyland back into the organization. It's a shame Leyland lives in Pittsburgh and works for the Tigers. If I'm Nutting, I want Leyland's eyes on my players. I trust those eyes more than anybody's in baseball.

Leyland belongs here. He absolutely belongs in Cooperstown.

Upcoming Events