Old hands match wits in Series

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The longer it goes, the messier this World Series is likely to get.

Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing.

Detroit skipper Jim Leyland smokes cigarettes to relieve tension, though a Michigan state law passed more than two years ago bans him from doing so inside the Tigers’ home, Comerica Park. So opening the series in San Francisco might actually be a little easier on his nerves, provided he figures out a way to sneak the occasional smoke in the visiting dugout hallway or somewhere else at AT&T Park. Otherwise, he’s likely to chew through a lot of nails.

Meanwhile, the go-to stress reliever for his Giants’ counterpart, Bruce Bochy, is dip. He usually puts the tins away once the day-to-day pressure of the season eases. But as soon as his ballclub hits a bad stretch or stumbles on a tough road trip early the following spring, Bochy reaches for the dip again. So imagine how many plugs of chew the strain of the postseason is going to mean.

“The triggers for me are at the ballpark,” Bochy said recently. “The last five years I quit during the winter. I made it deep into spring training this year.”

A weakness for tobacco isn’t the only thing the two have in common, of course. They might do some damage to Major League Baseball’s campaign to clean up the sport as far as tobacco is concerned — dip is already banned in the minors and Congress is pushing to halt its use in big league games, too — but the suits in charge would be hard-pressed to find two managers whose crusty demeanors honor the game’s traditions much better.

Leyland, 67, is a baseball lifer who signed with the Tigers organization as an 18-year-old catcher in 1963 and went on to hit a scintillating career .222 in the minors. He endured eating in truck stops and being stranded on two-lane highways alongside buses with flat tires at 4 o’clock in the morning — all without complaint. But eventually, he realized his only chance to stay in the game was on the bench. Close pal Tony La Russa gave Leyland a hand up by giving him the third-base coaching job in Chicago, where La Russa began building his reputation as a baseball genius.

Leyland’s ascension took longer and involved more detours. But back when both men were making names for themselves managing in the dungeon of Double-A ball, it was La Russa who was throwing around compliments at his friend like confetti. And when then-White Sox general manager Roland Hemond quizzed his newly minted manager about hiring coaches, there was only one name on the list.

“Tony said the best guy he ever managed against was Leyland,” Hemond recalled, laughing over the phone a few years ago. “Tony’s been great ever since about trying to give me credit for finding Jim. But believe me, without that testimonial, I’m not sure we would have made the move when we did.

“And as they say,” he added, “the rest is history.”

The Pirates scooped up Leyland in 1985, the first of his four managerial stints. Despite great teams in Pittsburgh, he didn’t hoist a World Series trophy above his head until the deep-pocketed Florida Marlins gave Leyland the chance in 1997 and the first words out of his mouth reminded everyone how long the road had been.

“This is for all the minor league managers, the guys in the instructional leagues,” he said that night in Miami. “I’m a Double-A backup, flunky catcher. So don’t give up guys.”

Bochy, 57, knows how that story goes. He, too, was a catcher, though he made it to the bigs before running out of steam as a player. A career .239 hitter, he played in exactly one World Series game, with the Padres in 1984. He went on to manage the club he played for — usually hamstrung by low budgets — but made it back to the World Series with the Padres in 1998, only to get swept by the Yankees. Eventually he moved from Southern California to San Francisco and wound up with a squad of grinders like him. He got his ring in 2010, and right after the Giants beat the Cardinals in Game 7 on Monday night to punch their ticket back to the World Series, the comparisons were rolled out.

“Every year it’s unique in its own way. 2010 was with the misfits, as we called them,” Bochy said. “But, you know, what we had to go through, here, with the adversity throughout the year ... getting down two games to Cincinnati and going down 3-1 to this great club.

“And finding a way to get it done just makes this so special, I think,” he added. “Because I do know we were written off many times. But these guys, again, were relentless in getting it done and they found a way.”

Like Leyland, Bochy rarely provides great sound bites for public consumption. A writer once likened him to “a two-by-four when TV cameras are on,” but don’t be fooled — the Giants’ sometimes-zany behavior is a reflection of the guy who leads them.

You won’t get the sense how much either man has endured, let alone sacrificed, to hang around the game each loved — not unless the camera catches one or the other hiding in a corner, nervously puffing away, or pulling a plug out of a tin.

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