In opposing dugouts, foes for now but friends once and likely forever

Published October 22, 2006

DETROIT — When the doubts arrive at 4 a.m., he may be tempted to pick up the telephone. To call the one person in the world who will best understand these percussive thoughts and fears.

Any other night, any other game, they might already have talked this one through. Much as they did recently in the middle of the night while in separate hotels on opposite coasts, competing for different league titles.

Sometimes, they talk of strategies. Other times, it is simply a connection between old friends.

So, as Saturday turned into Sunday, in the lonely hours following a Game 1 loss in the World Series, Jim Leyland could have used a call from Tony La Russa.

Except, now, they are adversaries.

In a Series of fresh faces and resurgent teams, they are the old, familiar names. A pair of managers with decades of experience and loads of attitude.

Their paths first crossed nearly 40 years ago as nondescript ballplayers on forgettable minor-league teams in Alabama. A dozen years later, they met again as Triple-A managers in towns in middle America.

The relationship was cemented in 1982 when La Russa, then in his fourth season as manager of the White Sox, gave Leyland the break of a lifetime with his first major-league job as Chicago’s third-base coach.

“It is,” Leyland said last week, “a great friendship.”

Which makes it the most fascinating tale of this World Series. Two of the game’s greatest minds. Two of its most forceful personalities. And only one of them will walk away as history’s second manager to win the Series in both leagues.

“You have two great managers who respect each other and happen to be friends,” Tigers first-base coach Andy Van Slyke said. “That, in itself, is enough. But the intriguing part is neither one will let you in to see what is going on in their heads this week.”

Both have made that clear. Leyland has been emphatic that he will not talk of their relationship because the World Series is about the players. La Russa has followed in agreement, although you get the sense it is out of loyalty to his friend.

And, yes, they do make an odd pair. La Russa, the lawyer from Tampa. Leyland, the priest’s brother from Perrysburg, Ohio. Born 10 weeks apart in 1944, they seem to have shared nothing but the dugouts each has patrolled.

They stood just a few feet from each other during the playing of America the Beautiful before Game 1, and the contrast was stark. La Russa, the animal-rights activist, was the picture of cool with a head full of dark hair and a crisp-looking uniform. Leyland, the chain-smoker with a truck driver’s vocabulary, looked more like a slouch with his unkempt, gray hair and untucked pullover shirt.

Yet they speak the same language. That of teamwork and respect for the game. They follow the same creed. One of loyalty and dedication.

When Leyland walked away from baseball in 1999, two years after winning the World Series with the Marlins and after one miserable season in Colorado, it was La Russa who once again brought him back to the majors.
He hired his old friend as a spring training instructor, and the Cardinals used him as an advance scout during the season.

They were co-workers for the next six seasons before Leyland got the urge to manage again.

“The guy’s your friend and you don’t want your friends to be unhappy,” La Russa said Friday afternoon. “That’s why it’s difficult to compete against them, because at the end of the day one of you is going to be unhappy.”

La Russa then paused briefly.

“I’d rather Jim be unhappy than the Cardinals.”

La Russa did his part to keep Leyland unhappy Saturday night. He chose Anthony Reyes as his starting pitcher, even though his five regular-season victories were the fewest for a Game 1 starter ever. He bypassed Scott Spiezio in favor of Chris Duncan as his DH, and the rookie drove in the go-ahead run.

If La Russa did everything right, Leyland guessed horribly wrong. He bucked conventional wisdom by declining to walk Albert Pujols with a runner on second and two out. Pujols hit the first pitch out to start Detroit’s Game 1 demise.

“I take the bullet there,’’ Leyland said. “If somebody gives you criticism, you accept it.’’

It was the type of call that will keep a manager up at night. A pivotal moment in an important game that turned sour.

Leyland would probably like to talk it over. He could certainly use a friend to commiserate.

In a perfect world, he would look for Tony La Russa.

Except these days, he’s in the other dugout.