10/31/11 6:45 PM ET
Leyland happy to see La Russa go out on top
Tigers skipper jumps to top of active wins chart
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
As he watched Game 6 unfold last Thursday night, one move after another between two of the game's great managers, one comeback after another between two hungry teams, Leyland turned to his wife Katie and made a point.
"I told my wife, 'Katie, what you're watching is exactly why I do this,'" Leyland said. "That's why I do what I do for a living. It's a thrill. It's exciting. It gets your heart pumping."
He won't say whether he knew at that point that La Russa was managing one of his last games, but given how often they talk, it's hard to believe he didn't have a suspicion. He makes no secret, though, of what he thought of the manager at work.
He tuned into La Russa's press conference Monday morning, and he took the calls that streamed in from reporters afterward. His answer about La Russa's legacy was consistent.
"You've seen the best manager for the last 33 years," Leyland said in a phone interview.
Active leaders in regular-season managerial wins
"I mean, for the last 33 years he's been the best manager in baseball, arguably the best of all time if you want to make a case for that," Leyland said. "I mean, you can't really compare eras, but ... it's in the book. What else do you want?"
La Russa retires with 2,728 regular-season wins, third all-time among Major League managers. The two skippers ahead of him, Connie Mack and John McGraw, are both in the Hall of Fame.
With La Russa's exit, Leyland becomes the leader among active managers. He's 1,140 wins behind his good friend.
"I'm thrilled for him," Leyland said, "because I think, obviously, he went out the right way, but also watching him today, I think he's at total peace with that. I could tell watching him that he's at peace with himself. He just won another World Series."
La Russa goes out a World Series champion. Had the Tigers won a couple more games in the AL Championship Series, he would've managed his last games against Leyland on the game's greatest stage. That might have been perfect for him, but this comes close.
Their friendship goes back at least three decades, with similar backgrounds. Leyland never made it out of the Minors as a player; La Russa played 132 Major League games, but spent far longer in the Minors. Unlike Leyland, La Russa wasn't a Minor League manager for long, earning his shot with the White Sox after a short stint. Still, he respected the job that went into managing on the farm.
When La Russa got his first shot at managing in the big leagues, he hired Leyland for his staff. Leyland had spent more than a decade managing in the Tigers' system, but appeared blocked.
"He took a chance on me as a third-base coach," Leyland said, "and that led to me being a Major League manager. He had a tremendous influence."
They were coach and boss, but they were colleagues. Leyland said they would talk after games, night after night, about the game, and about other managers -- Bobby Cox, Sparky Anderson, Joe Torre, to name a few -- and what they did. He took that experience into his first big league managerial job in Pittsburgh in 1986.
That same year, La Russa was fired by the White Sox and hired in Oakland, where he led the A's to three straight AL pennants. In 1996, he bounced to St. Louis, and he and Leyland became competitors in the same division before Leyland left Pittsburgh for Florida.
When Leyland was burned out as a manager, having stepped away from the Rockies, it was La Russa's Cardinals who gave him a chance to stay in the game as a special assignment scout, working from home in Pittsburgh. When Leyland got back into managing with Detroit, he led the Tigers to the World Series against La Russa's Cardinals and lost.
They talked just about every day during the season. When the Tigers beat the Yankees in Game 5 of the AL Division Series, La Russa left him voicemails after the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
"He was a wreck," Leyland joked at the time.
When La Russa made it all the way on the Cardinals' incredible run, Leyland watched and admired. As he said, that's why they do this.
"He was a total manager," Leyland answered. "He was a complete manager. He had the ability to relate to players. He was a total tactician. He just was the total package. I think he was a tremendous in-game manager, tremendously prepared.
"He was the total package and that's why he's been the best. That's why he is the best."
They'll still talk regularly, Leyland said, just not as competitors anymore. Leyland will now be the winningest active manager, and the third-oldest, but he'll still be listening. If he can get the Tigers to take the next step, he'll have a chance to match La Russa and Anderson as the only managers to lead teams in each league to World Series titles.
Like La Russa, Leyland is now going year to year with his contract in Detroit. If and when he doesn't have the fire anymore, he has said, he'll walk away.
Whether Leyland would likewise go out on top if the Tigers won the World Series is anyone's guess. But he'd love to have a shot at a Series like this one.