Jim Leyland's baseball brand of democracy makes him special to all

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The old scouts were all sitting around the press box during a rain delay at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta the other night when, inevitably, the topic of conversation turned to the value of ballplayers.

"There are certain ballplayers who are worth 10 games extra a year to their teams," said George Zuraw, who has spent 35 years in baseball as a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and now the Seattle Mariners. "The same goes for the real special non-playing personnel.

"When I was at Cincinnati, I always felt our general manager, Bob Howsam, meant 10 games a year to us because he knew how to run a ballclub better than anyone else in the game. I'd say the same thing about Jimmy Leyland. He's one manager who makes that kind of a difference."

High praise indeed, especially when you consider Leyland has never won a world championship, never even been to a World Series. And yet, such endorsements of the 46-year-old Pirates manager are not uttered by just a few old scouts in baseball circles.

Joe McIlvaine, the former New York Mets vice president of baseball operations who is now the general manager in San Diego, never made any secret that his first choice of any manager in baseball would be Leyland. And that was long before Leyland took a Pittsburgh team almost unanimously picked to finish fourth last year to the NL East title.

Similarly, Chicago White Sox board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf still openly regrets the day he let Leyland leave his employ as third base-coach to take the Pittsburgh manager's job in 1986.

"I knew then he was going to be one of the best managers in the game, but we had Tony [LaRussa] at the time and I couldn't hold Jimmy back," Reinsdorf said. "Some guys are just special."

So what makes Leyland so special? Why do so many owners and GMs and scouts talk about him like they do? Or how could players like Sid Bream anguish over taking $5.6 million to walk away from the Pirates last winter because it also meant walking away from Leyland?

"Probably because Jimmy never forgot who he is, where he came from and how tough it is to play this game," Pirates center fielder Andy Van Slyke said. "He's always been able to communicate that to his players."

Where Leyland came from is every place on the baseball map. His playing career never got him any further than Montgomery, Ala., however, and for 11 years after that, he managed in such whistle stops as Bristol, Tenn., Clinton, Iowa, Lakeland, Fla., and Evansville, Ind.

But as Van Slyke says, just because a guy paid his dues for 15 years in the bushes doesn't mean he should stand as an example for all career minor-leaguers.

"You have to learn something," Van Slyke said, "and what Jimmy learned above all else was how to treat all his players, stars or mediocrities, alike."

That, more than anything else, is the essence of Leyland and his Pirate teams. Theirs may well be the most selfless clubhouse in ** baseball. Certainly, it is one of the very few where all the role players admit they are role players and even relish it.

But then, maybe that's because Leyland doesn't make them feel like role players. When Van Slyke was sidelined last week by a pulled muscle, leaving a gaping hole in the No. 3 slot of the batting order, Leyland -- instead of moving up either of his superstar sluggers, Barry Bonds or Bobby Bonilla -- simply chose to use whomever was taking Van Slyke's place in center field that night.

"Batting third, No. 42, Gary Varsho."

"As soon as Gary [Varsho], Curtis [Wilkerson] and Mac [Lloyd McClendon] came over here, I told 'em: 'You're really gonna enjoy this. You'll always know when you're gonna play,' " platoon first baseman Gary Redus said.

Redus should know. On June 15, he was hitting .196, but Leyland continued to bat him in the leadoff spot against lefties. In addition, Leyland resisted the temptation to turn first base over entirely to rookie Orlando Merced, who was hitting over .300 for his half of the platoon. Since then, Redus has gone on a 22-for-56 tear to raise his average to .261.

"There's a lot of people in baseball who would have released Gary Redus," Van Slyke said, "and even more people who wouldn't have kept batting him first."

"I was really down," Redus admitted. "I didn't say anything, but Jimmy knew. He came to me one day in the outfield before a game and said: 'You OK? I don't want you to start worrying. I'm gonna keep playing you. All I ask is that you keep playing hard when you're in there.' "

If his players think talking to them like that, reassuring them or just showing them he cares, is a big deal, Leyland does not. Mention great clubhouse chemistry to him and he scowls.

"Clubhouse atmosphere is overrated," he said. "It has nothing to do with whether you win or lose. In '86, they said we had the happiest clubhouse in the league and we lost 98 games. We still do the same thing, but the difference is we have better talent."

As for his approach with players, Leyland concedes his long tour in the minor-league vineyards might have given him a different perspective than, say, Roger Craig, Lou Piniella or Whitey Herzog.

"My experience in the minor leagues helped me a lot," he said. "I saw a lot of stars come down there and fail or face adversity for the first time. You have to do a lot of consoling down there."

Still, Leyland is not above confronting his players -- and even spanking his superstars -- when the situation dictates. When Bonilla went into a tirade last year, blasting a team official over his parking space, Leyland called the $2 million outfielder into his office and read him the riot act.

And when Bonds went into a funk this past spring training, Leyland lashed out at the NL MVP, telling him to to shape up or get out. Despite the highly publicized argument, with TV cameras rolling, Bonds and Leyland insist there's no feud.

"It didn't help or hurt," Leyland shrugs. "It was just something that happened over the course of time."

Leyland's other battles have come largely with his own cost-conscious bosses. Pirates ownership, an 11-member quasi-public board, has been eroding everything he has carefully cultivated by refusing to meet the salary demands of free agents like Bream and now Bonilla.

"I tell my players I want them to have peace of mind," Leyland said. "I never tell them to stay here and I don't get upset if they go someplace better. That's what they're supposed to do. I'm not here to get 'em cut rate. All I can do is treat 'em with respect and dignity when they're here."

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