Leyland got his first big-league managing job in Pittsburgh and lost the NL Championship Series three years in a row. Tougher still was hanging on after the cost-conscious Pirates' organization effectively gave up, letting guys like Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds slip away, before they started cutting to the bone. Leyland eventually migrated to Miami, where he hoisted the World Series trophy and gave a brief emotional speech.
"This is for all the minor league managers, the guys in the instructional leagues. So don't give up."
But the very next season, the Marlins did, conducting a fire sale that left Leyland shaking his head and eventually fleeing to the Colorado Rockies. After a season there, convinced he'd let himself, his ballplayers and the organization down, Leyland walked away from the game.
"We've talked a lot over the years and believe me, he left money on the table there," La Russa said. "But every year, Jim and I would have the same discussion about managing, with the same questions: Are you fired up to do the job? Is the club responding to your leadership? Do you have the confidence of the front office and ownership? I'm pretty sure Jim didn't sign up for this year until he checked his gut."
General manager Dave Dombrowski, who met La Russa and Leyland when he was a young front-office assistant in Chicago three decades ago, is certain all the stars are aligned. He knows few managers could get over the way Detroit was clobbered by San Francisco in the series last year and that none would come back any hungrier.
"If most of what you know about Jim is seeing him talking after games — giving short, gruff answers — you wouldn't know how much baseball means to him," Dombrowski said. "He's seen just about everything and he still loves everything about it. He just doesn't always come across that way."
And that's the only shame. To make ends meet at various times, Leyland stamped out windshields at a General Motors plant, delivered mail and hauled construction materials around. But even now that he's flush and in control of one of a handful of serious contenders, he isn't about to loosen up.
"I never thought all those days ago about making it or not making it," Leyland said. "I'm just happy they kept me around long enough to find a way I could stick."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him on Twitter.com/JimLitke.