MINNEAPOLIS — Jim Leyland sat behind his desk, his blue-and-orange Detroit Tigers hat covering a lowered head.
Amid the din of players shouting and chanting a few feet away in the visitor clubhouse at Minnesota, the 68-year-old manager was asked how that sound of celebration made him feel.
“They’re awful happy,” Leyland said, barely looking up and repeating himself after his voice cracked hard on the first try.
Even a gruff, grizzled guy like Leyland can get emotional in moments like these near the end of the 162-game grind. The Tigers simply did what was expected of them, win the American League Central division for a third straight time, but this was still an accomplishment worth celebrating Wednesday after a victory over the Twins to clinch the pennant.
This time, after reaching the World Series last season, they’re aiming to throw the biggest party of all at the end.
“We plan on doing a lot more,” right fielder Torii Hunter said.
Hunter was the one who took a brief break from the mosh pit in the middle of the plastic-encased room to carry Leyland out of his office. Hunter brought the boss with a bear hug into the fray of the spray of low-alcohol white sparkling wine. Leyland jumped up and down with the group a few times, did a little dance and then disappeared back into his quarters.
“This is their team. This is their clubhouse. I’ve got my office, and I let them be major leaguers,” Leyland said a few minutes before Hunter grabbed him. “I let them be professional major leaguers, but that’s something that you treasure.”
Leyland added: “You have your moments, and they have their moments, and you have your moments with them. But at the end of the day, I think they know how I feel about them.”
They even had a few dozen of their fans in attendance on a late-September weeknight at Target Field, enough to start a “Let’s go Tigers!” chant as Joaquin Benoit was working on the final out of the ninth inning for Detroit’s 93rd win.
“It’s a great marriage. It really is. They pay a lot of money to see us entertain them, and I’d like to think the last few years we’ve entertained them pretty good,” Leyland said. “We’ve got a couple more steps to go obviously, but I just hope that they feel that they’re getting their money’s worth, because they spend a lot of money. And we appreciate that.”
The schedule fortuitously granted the Tigers Thursday off. Leyland and his coaches planned to golf in Miami at a course he used to belong to when he was the manager there. They play the Marlins for three games this weekend before getting four more days to rest before their AL division series, with Oakland the most likely opponent. The A’s have a one-game lead to determine which team would get the home-field advantage.
They don’t have to worry about that for a few days, though. Nobody cared Wednesday night about the postseason bracket.
“We’re brothers, guys we’ve been in the clubhouse with all year,” Hunter said. “You’ve got the ups. You’ve got the downs. We’re always together.”
Including the manager, who has taken the Tigers to the postseason four times in eight years.
“He lets us go out and play the game the right way. He knows we’re going to play the game the right way. He has a lot of faith in us. He comes in, he’ll say a couple words, and he goes back out,” Hunter said. “He’s a great man. … Why wouldn’t you want to play hard for a guy like that who’s always on your side, who’s always got your back?”