The lame duck manager has his team in first place. It’s past the halfway mark of June.

I thought this was supposed to be an almost impossible task.

Where are the fools now who insisted that Tigers manager Jim Leyland have a contract that extends beyond just this season?

This was supposed to be a travesty.

Leyland, signed only thru 2009, was supposed to be so hamstrung by this fact that he couldn’t possibly manage his way out of a paper bag.

That term, lame duck–you can stuff it, as far as I’m concerned.

It was tossed around, as it usually is, with reckless abandon last fall and winter. I warned that those using the term so casually might end up choking on it.

Anyone know the Heimlich Maneuver?

The back story is this. Leyland pouted to the papers last fall that he’d earned a contract extension. That’s what started everything, and Leyland knew that it would. His words were of design and self-serving, and for that I lost some respect for him.

He called his owner out, all but daring to be fired, because the timing couldn’t have been any worse. The Tigers were coming off a stinker of a year (74-88), a season in which they were supposed to score 1,000 runs and run away with everything by Memorial Day.

Leyland said, well, yeah, but I’ve had two good years out of three!

I wrote that his logic was flawed, because the Tigers have never, in the three years that Leyland has managed them, had a good second half. And I’m including their Cinderella-like 2006 run to the World Series.

When it comes to performing solidly after the All-Star break, the Tigers are 0-for-3 under Jim Leyland. That’s my logic, and I think it’s more indicative of the job he’s done.

So I wasn’t too pleased with Leyland when he called out Mike Ilitch and cried for a contract extension, coming off such a disappointing season. This is because if there is ever a fair owner in pro sports, it’s Ilitch. He doesn’t make players or coaches or managers come crawling to him with their hands out. If a performance is worthy of reward, Mike Ilitch rewards it. Been doing it, to a fault perhaps, ever since I’ve covered him–some 27 years and counting.

But be that as it may, I’m going to defend Leyland in this way: he’s the manager, because that’s what his contract says. And I knew darn well that his contract status wouldn’t hinder his ability to do his job. At least not before the All-Star break.

After that, he still has a lot to prove to me.

So far, I’m right.

The Tigers might be a wobbly first place team, but they are a first place team. None of the nonsense that was supposed to happen with a “lame duck” manager–player revolt, clubhouse lawyering, etc.–has occurred. As I knew it wouldn’t.

I’ll drudge it up again: the Dodgers did fine and dandy with Walter Alston and his annual one-year contracts. Walt managed the team for over 20 years with that set-up, even after the team offered to give him longer-term deals.

Nowhere does it say that a manager or a coach need be signed beyond the current season in order to do his job competently. The list of canned coaches with multiple years left on their contracts ought to prove that theorem in a backwards kind of way.

Like I said, Jim Leyland has a lot to still prove, to me. He needs to navigate his team around the land mines in August and September a lot better than he’s done so far. It’ll be especially crucial that he do so this year, because the Tigers are letting teams hang around in the Central Division, thus encouraging a tight race down the stretch.

But he’s no lame duck.

Not that I ever thought he was.

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