Jacques Demers, as the irrepressible coach of the Detroit Red Wings, wasn’t happy.
It was early in his tenure in Detroit, circa 1987. And his team was slumping. Worse, Jacques thought the effort wasn’t always there, which he couldn’t abide.
So he called practice at 7:30 a.m. one blustry winter morning.
“I wanted them to get up early, just like all the hard-working people who pay to see them play,” Demers said, explaining the early-bird ice session. “I wanted them to fight rush hour traffic and everything. Just like the fans do every day.”
On another occasion, Demers arranged for a field trip–bussing his players to a blighted part of the city, so they could see how fortunate they had it in the NHL.
Demers took a team that surrendered over 400 goals and mustered just 40 points the season prior and instilled a more intense work ethic. On the ice, he emphasized defense and checking first, scoring second.
It worked. The Red Wings went from 40 points to 78 points in his first season, and made it all the way to the conference finals.
Demers had a good handle on the city in which he worked while he was in Detroit.
Jim Leyland possesses that same keen awareness, as Tigers manager.
Leyland was effusive in his praise of the Detroit baseball fans Thursday, in the aftermath of a 6-5 matinee win over the Chicago Cubs, which gave the Tigers another sweep and a perfect 6-0 record on their homestand.
“Detroit’s a tough, resilient town, and they’re going to make it,” he was quoted in the Free Press today. “They’re not going to give up, they’re going to fight and going to make it. I think what you’re seeing out here is case in point. They’re out here supporting their team. I wish I could give every one of them a ticket, to be honest with you, for one game. But I can’t. I wish I could because the support is unbelievable.”
Leyland gets it. That’s one thing I can’t take away from him. When it comes to appreciating his lot in life, and the responsibility that he has as Tigers manager–responsibility whose range extends beyond what goes on between the white lines–Leyland has no false illusions.
That’s why I was so surprised and disappointed in him last fall when he crabbed to the media about his contract situation, and that he felt he deserved an extension (which was signed last week). It was a calling out of the owner and, in an indirect way, a slap to the folks in town who were–and still are–going through job loss and other stress.
His words were calculated and self-serving, and I didn’t think Leyland had that in him.
But all is forgiven. The Tigers are playing well, the manager appreciates the fan’s support, and he knows that a good baseball season can do wonders for the psyche of the people in and around the city.
“We’d like to do something special for them, but I’m not putting the cart before the horse. We’re playing pretty good, it’s June, and I’m not getting excited about that. But I’m happy to see happy faces; I’m happy to see people up there drinking a beer, having a good time. It’s great, it’s wonderful.”
Leyland, who’s very close to St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, and who worked for the Cardinals as a scout, has now been associated with two of the best baseball cities in the country, according to him.
“I keep talking about it all the time. St. Louis and Detroit are the two best baseball towns for me, without any question, they’re the two best. They’ll come out, they’ll figure out a way to get in the ballpark and support their team. That’s what I like about it. Detroit fans, they’re different. They don’t care who the leftfielder, rightfielder, centerfielder, rightfielder, manager is, they’re Detroit Tiger fans and that’s what the best thing about it is to me. … It’s just a great baseball town.”
New Lions coach Jim Schwartz spoke recently about the “responsibility”–that word again–that he feels he has as the football coach in town. Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has expressed similar views as Schwartz and Leyland, vis-a-vis the tough times the fans are going through in Detroit, and how winning teams can do wonders to soothe them.
I don’t always agree with Leyland’s in-game decisions–what a boring world this would be if I did–but I have to hand it to him: he knows which side his bread is buttered on. And he also knows that there are some people who are fans of his team who might not know where that next loaf is even coming from.