Tigers by the tail

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DETROIT (AP) – Jim Leyland got out of managing in 1999 because he didn’t have the energy to put out ego-related fires during his only season with the Colorado Rockies.

Now, he’s back – and so are the Detroit Tigers.

Leyland had enough passion to rip into the Tigers with a profanity-laced tirade April 17 after a lopsided loss to Cleveland because he was upset with their lackluster effort.

Detroit won 13 of 17 games after Leyland lashed out, and was off to one of the most surprising starts in baseball with a 20-10 record entering Saturday’s game at Minnesota.

The last time the Tigers had a team this successful at this point was 1984, when they went on to win their fourth World Series title.

“Leyland does a good job of nipping problems in the bud, before they become a big deal,” Detroit closer Todd Jones said. “And what he said in here a couple weeks ago is a good example of that.”

Leyland characterized what he did as “nothing,” adding it was an everyday duty he didn’t do often enough with the Rockies.

“I put out a big fire in Colorado, but I didn’t put out all the little ones that led to the big fire,” Leyland said.

Leyland wanted to get back into the dugout because his burnout-induced resignation in Colorado – with two years and $4 million left on his contract – stuck in his craw, as the 61-year-old skipper says.

His reputation as one of the best managers around seemed secure after leading Florida to a World Series title in 1997 and Pittsburgh to three straight division titles in the early 1990s while picking up two NL Manager of the Year awards.

After the year in Colorado, though, Leyland didn’t feel comfortable with how his managing career apparently had ended. It gnawed at him even while he enjoyed a leisurely life in Pittsburgh, where he scouted games for the St. Louis Cardinals and hung out with his wife and kids.

So he signed a three-year contract in October to replace the fired Alan Trammell and accepted the huge task of turning around a Tigers team that had averaged 100 losses since 2001 and was coming off its 12th straight losing season.

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski says Leyland has more hop in his step than he did when they won a championship together in Florida, and the straight-shooting manager guarantees his energy level will not subside.

“I’m going to be into it all year, and they’re going to get the best I got,” Leyland said. “Whatever that’s worth, that’s what it is.

“But I’m not going to make myself miserable.”

What’s the most enjoyable part about managing again?

“Winning them games,” he said quickly. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Leyland certainly looks and sounds like he’s enjoying himself.

Earlier this week, he conducted pregame interviews while he lounged on a couch with his stocking feet on a coffee table, eating a candy bar, drinking a bottle of water and smoking a cigarette.

“Sit in my chair, you’ve been second-guessing people for 30 years,” Leyland joked to a pair of veteran reporters.

Leyland acknowledged it’s easier to be in a good mood when the team is winning, and the Tigers have done a lot of that. They have one of the top records in baseball because their starting pitching, bullpen and power at the plate have been among the best, and they’ve been solid defensively.

“We want to get the fans back. That’s the one goal I have here,” Leyland said. “This is a great baseball town, it always has been. It’s nice to hear people talk about the Tigers. And, in a positive way, I may add.”

The Tigers were the butt of jokes in 2003 when they lost an AL-record 119 games.

Pitcher Mike Maroth was the face of that misery three years ago when he became baseball’s first 20-game loser since 1980. Now he’s a symbol of Detroit’s turnaround with a 4-1 record and a 1.78 ERA – ranking among the leaders in both categories.

“We’ve come a long way,” Maroth said. “I knew things would turn around, because we’ve added players. This team is good, and what we’ve done so far is no fluke, because everybody is contributing.”

Dombrowski, with an $82.3 million payroll, added just two key players in the offseason – Jones and starter Kenny Rogers – because he was convinced Leyland and a healthy team would give them a chance to compete.

So far, he’s been right.

Rogers leads the rotation, which includes improving veterans as well as rookie Justin Verlander. Jones has been solid since returning from a hamstring injury, completing a strong bullpen that has another rookie, Joel Zumaya, turning heads with 100 mph pitches.

First baseman Chris Shelton got off to a sensational start, with five homers in his first four games. Shelton has cooled off, but a lineup with potent hitters from top to bottom has battered opposing pitchers.

“Jim has a vision of the way baseball should be played and has a terrific ability to adjust his vision to tailor it to what he has,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

The Tigers began 5-0 before dropping six of eight, giving Leyland material for his booming, baritone, X-rated rant that could be heard by reporters through an open clubhouse door.

“What was good about him going off on us was the timing,” said third baseman Brandon Inge. “He did it early, and not in the middle or late in the season when it might’ve been too late.”

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