That was the Tigers skipper’s unprofessional response to a New York reporter asking him to comment on the arrest of Detroit leftfielder, Delmon Young. The Tigers slugger was allegedly drunk when he reportedly tussled with a Jewish panhandler on Friday night, hurling anti-Semitic slurs while bruising with the street person and several passersby, who police said were also Jewish.
But someone forgot to warn the New York press that Leyland is accustomed to friendly media types who routinely give him a free pass. Detroit reporters handle him with kid gloves on a regular basis. So, when he got a tough question from the New York press, Leyland reportedly threw a tantrum.
Long before the Young arrest, and a three-game sweep at the hands of the Seattle Mariners, Detroit reporters wondered aloud how to approach Leyland about Tiger, Brandon Inge and his career meltdown. Last Monday evening, I listened to the 97.1FM “The Ticket” as Bob Wojnowski, Mike Valenti and Terry Foster pondered a strategic approach to interviewing Leyland. Should they ask him about Inge and fans booing him? Did his sub .100 batting average justify benching or waivers? How would Leyland respond to such questions?
It was painful to hear. But that’s the state of sports journalism in Detroit. Reporters are afraid, with tails between their legs, fearful of confronting team management in a town where pizza-pizza king, Mike Ilitch, owns both the baseball and hockey teams. But it’s not because Little Caesar’s is a ruthless ruler.
Here’s how I see it. The radio stations that broadcast those games feature print journalists as co-hosts for daily sports talk shows. And TV stations feature other print journalists as guests on their Sunday night sports wrap-ups. ESPN does it, too.
Since everything is intertwined with conflicts of interest, there’s little room for these beat writers to truthfully criticize the teams and management they cover.
I have to admit, I’m no Jim Leyland fan. I call him the mañana manager. (Spanish for “later, man.”) For my taste, he responds too slowly in game situations. Late to pull pitchers when they lose their stuff. Late to play small ball when the Tigers struggle for offense. And often illogical in his personnel decisions and then slow to adjust. For example, why continue to bat power-hitter Brennan Boesch in the number two slot as his batting average tumbled to the low .200’s? He’s soft on his players. Remember how his pitchers failed to field their positions in the Tigers 2006 World Series collapse?
Oh, how I long for a season with Billy Martin or Sparky Anderson at the helm.
Now, in fairness, some of you may be saying, “look, Media Guy, Leyland forgot more about baseball than you’ll ever know.” And you may be right. I’ve covered my share of sports in my career, but I’m no expert. On the other hand, when a team is struggling to play .500 baseball, the skipper should face his share of tough questions. Especially when he’s known to be slow to make changes.
Remember in 2006, when the Tigers needed just one win at the end of the season to clinch their division title. They lost three in a row to the Kansas City Royals, and Leyland in a panic pitched his ace starter Kenny Rogers in relief. The Tigers blew a six-run lead and lost the third of three consecutive games to the Royals and backed into the playoffs in the wild card slot. The Tigers lost their last five games that season.
Then there was the 2008 season, we picked up Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Dontrelle Willis. Instant championship right? Lots of season tickets sold. The team tanked so badly in the first couple weeks, they never recovered. Leyland kept saying, be patient.
Since, gold glove all-star Placido Polanco left Detroit in 2009, Tigers President, CEO and General Manager, Dave Dombrowski, has yet to fill the hole at second base and add a contact hitter like Polanco in the number two spot of the batting order. This year, Leyland has inserted and rotated a number of second-hand replacements so rapidly, no one can get in the groove at the plate or on the field. He even let Inge try his hand at the position in an embarrassing last hurrah before his departure.
Do you recall a few years ago when Leyland pitched hurler Jeremy Bonderman, game after game, after the kid gave up four or more runs in the first inning, time after time? Eventually, we discovered Bonderman had a career-ending injury. He’s still trying to make a comeback. So, why did Leyland pitch Rick Porcello in the second inning last week after the Texas Rangers shelled him for eight runs in the first?
Again, you may disagree with my analysis, but where are the questions? Why would Detroit sign the expensive hard swinging first basemen, Prince Fielder, when they already had Miguel Cabrera at that position? Didn't they need a third baseman? Why does Jhonny Peralta, who batted over .300 last year, continue to bat seventh? Wouldn’t he benefit from batting in front of Cabrera? When are we going to pick up a real second baseman, or play the switch-hitting and sure-handed fielder Ramon Santiago every day? What about more speed on the base paths and guys who can get on base?
As April winds down the Tigers are 11-11 with eight losses in their last ten games. They’re picked to win it all in 2012, with the 2011 American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award Winner, in Justin Verlander and 2011 American League Batting Champion, in Cabrera
Maybe you can understand why I’m not content to hear Leyland say “don’t panic, it’s a long season.” He may be right, but the questions deserve to be asked, even if his answers are always mañana.
I just wish someone would ask him.