Tigers' Leyland: Throwback with big heart

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On the surface, Jim Leyland is old school all the way.

The Tigers' manager still smokes as if it's the 1970s, sparring with reporters in the gravelly voice of a two-pack-a-day man. He still respects hard work more than talent, so much so that even at the age of 66, he sometimes will work late enough to end up sleeping on a cot in his office. And he still believes in being a straight shooter, the sort of guy who doesn't believe in candy-coating the truth, no matter whether he's talking to a player, a reporter or a fan.

Yet there have been some sure signs this season that something different is stirring inside Leyland, that deep down he isn't really as crusted through as a week-old bagel. Witness what happened two weeks ago when the Tigers clinched the AL Central, their first division title since 1987.

As his team sprayed champagne around him, Leyland, who had swapped his cigarettes for a cigar, got emotional and had to blink back tears during an interview.

Yes, Jim Leyland cried. And Thursday at Yankee Stadium, he bared his soul a bit. As his team got ready to open its American League Division Series against the Yankees Friday night, Leyland admitted how special it is for him to be back in the playoffs.

"I was supposed to be fired 10 times this year," he said. "I only had one year left on my contract and all that. It wasn't going to change anything I do. I'm proud I'm here today. I was going to do the best I could whatever the situation was."

The situation during the spring was that some of Leyland's players weren't sure he was going to be able to keep his job. Some in a city that once embraced him were not sure he should return.

"Early in the season when we got off to a slow start, it was tough," said outfielder Austin Jackson, a former Yankees prospect involved in the trade that brought Curtis Granderson to the Yankees. "I'd be lying to you if I said guys in here weren't thinking about [his job security]. He's our manager, and he keeps us motivated and he keeps us tough."

Leyland has used some unusual motivational tools this season. Like many ballplayers, he is a bit superstitious. Unlike many, he's willing to take those superstitions to new and bizarre levels. During the Tigers' 12-game winning streak early this month, Leyland revealed he would wear the same socks -- and the same underwear -- every day until the streak was over.

"I will wear these underwear until we lose," Leyland said. "I can tell you that right now. And they will not be washed. And I don't give a ---- who knows it."

Apparently, it's that kind of all-or-nothing attitude that helped his team get back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.

"He brings that fire every day," Jackson said. "You hardly see him smile, but when things are going tough, he will be there to fire guys up."

It's hard to be more fired up than Leyland is coming into this series against the Yankees. Said Leyland: "We're thrilled to be back, and we earned our way back. I don't think anyone can take that away from us. We earned the [right] to play these guys and hopefully move on."

Tears, underwear, cigarettes and all.

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