Jim Leyland is eager to extol the virtues of Lloyd McClendon, the new Mariners manager and a disciple of the legendary skipper.
“Lloyd is one of those special guys,’’ Leyland said. “He’s ready — more ready this time than last time … I think you guys out there are going to fall in love with him. I’d be really, really shocked if this didn’t work out great for the Mariners.”
With that, Leyland was off and running. He talked about how even as a utility player on Leyland’s great Pirates teams of the early 1990s, McClendon exuded leadership qualities.
“He was not a loud voice in the clubhouse, but a respected voice in the clubhouse,’’ Leyland said. “There’s a big difference.”
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He detailed how McClendon served, along with fellow coach Gene Lamont, as his sounding board for the past eight years on those highly successful Tigers teams.
“If you saw our dugout, it was myself and Gene and Lloyd side by side most of the time,” Leyland said. “I leaned on both of those guys a lot, and learned a lot from both of them.”
It all leads, of course, toward an obvious question, one that begged to be asked after word broke yesterday that the Mariners had hired McClendon to succeed Eric Wedge.
If McClendon is so great, why didn’t the Tigers hire him to succeed Leyland when he stepped down following Detroit’s ouster in the American League Championship Series?
McClendon interviewed with Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, but the job went to former major-league catcher Brad Ausmus, who had never managed or coached at any professional level.
So, why was Ausmus on the podium in Detroit last week and not McClendon?
“I think it’s a legitimate question,’’ Leyland said. “I’ll tell you exactly what I know happened. Ten days ago, I think Lloyd McClendon was going to be the manager of the Tigers, unless someone totally knocked their socks off.
“Dave told me he would be very comfortable with Lloyd as manager. …Obviously, Brad Ausmus knocked their socks off. It’s as plain and simple as that. I think if you asked Dave if he would have been comfortable with Lloyd as his manager, the answer would be an adamant yes.”
So I asked Dombrowski. And it was. In fact, he used the same hosiery analogy as Leyland, leaving me with the conclusion that there are a lot of barefoot people in and around Comerica Park.
“I said all along we’d hire him in a minute, but we needed to follow through with the process and see if someone knocked our socks off,’’ Dombrowski said. “And Brad did. For us, it was really that we found someone, in Brad Ausmus, we think has tremendous upside potential. If it wasn’t for that, Lloyd would have been a great choice.”
So it appears McClendon never would have been available for the Mariners if Ausmus had bombed in his interview.
“If you ask me if I thought Lloyd would be the next manager of the Tigers, yes, I did,’’ Leyland said.
Instead, he’s the next manager of the Mariners, eight years after he was fired by the Pirates. Leyland said he’s been “absolutely shocked“ McClendon hasn’t gotten his next shot until now.
In Pittsburgh, where he had a .430 winning percentage with some shoddy talent over nearly five seasons, McClendon showed himself to be a fiery and demonstrative manager. He clashed with umpires, famously uprooted first base in one dispute, and feuded at times with the division-rival Cardinals.
After one heated pregame exchange involving Cardinals and Pirates personnel, St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan called McClendon “an idiot,’’ adding that he “seems to think the way to manage a ballclub is to intimidate his players (and) other teams.”
Former Mariner Jack Wilson, the Pirates’ starting shortstop throughout McClendon’s tenure, saw it quite differently. He noted that the Cardinals ruled the division at the time, while the Pirates were cellar-dwellers.
“It was that attitude, we don’t care who you are or your record or our record, we’re here to beat you,’’ said Wilson by phone. “Obviously, something was said or done in a disrespectful way toward our team. He was behind us 100 percent, a gamer … that was reflective of his passion to win.”
Wilson, a strong McClendon advocate, believes he managed so aggressively to compensate for the Pirates’ inexperience.
“He had to be fiery, just because we had so many young kids,’’ he said. “We didn’t have a lot of veterans, so it fell on him. We had some fiery meetings, because a lot of times we needed it. We needed a butt-kicking.’’
Wilson notes that an established star like Felix Hernandez could take on some of those leadership duties in Seattle. And Leyland believes that the passage of time, and the gaining of experience, will inevitably lead to a less flamboyant persona for McClendon, now 54.
“All the growing pains, you calm down,’’ Leyland said. “He’s going to fight for his team, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that he’s mellowed; but over the years, as you sit back and think, you learn from past experiences. That’s another reason his maturity as a manager is going to show up. He knows what he did wrong and what he did right.”
The troubled Mariners, not the Tigers, will get to plug into McClendon 2.0. It’s been awhile since an M’s manager has knocked our socks off, and there are obviously some major impediments to success. But Leyland likes his chances.
“I really think when some of the Mariners’ young players mature at the major-league level, they have a chance to be good pretty quick,’’ he said. “Lloyd is going to be all business but have fun at the same time. It’s a pretty good combination.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry