Given the 71-game winner he inherited from Alan Trammell eight seasons ago, that is putting it mildly. But like his friend and mentor Tony La Russa, Leyland has often undersold his contribution to the teams he took to the playoffs, including a 1997 Marlins team that beat the Indians in the World Series and two Detroit teams that won pennants.
Dave Dombrowski, the general manager/team president who was smart enough to coax Leyland out of his first retirement, said Leyland's "tenure will be looked back on as one of the great eras in Tigers history.'' Leyland's retirement, which comes at the end of his third one-year deal to return -- the same kind of arrangement that La Russa had in his final years in St. Louis -- is unexpected, but not shocking.
It comes as another era is ending.
With Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella and La Russa also retiring since August 2010, when Piniella left the Cubs to take care of his ailing mother, baseball is exhausting one of the richest veins of managerial brainpower, creativity and orneriness in its history.
They all did it their ways. Piniella wrestled on the floor with Reds "Nasty Boys" reliever Rob Dibble before giving owner Marge Schott a championship in Cincinnati. Cox benched a young Andruw Jones and helped produce a textbook player who was running out grounders at age 25. La Russa took Gil Hodges' platoon differential innovations to another level, developing the three out/three reliever concept for the seventh and eighth innings.
Torre, Cox and La Russa -- the lucky one who got to walk away the ideal way, after his 2011 Cardinals won one of the most dramatic World Series ever -- all ended up in the top five all-time in victories. Factor in Piniella, Leyland and Johnson, and you've got six of the top 28 all-time, who combined to win 11 of the last 27 World Series, beginning with Johnson's 1986 Mets beating the Red Sox when Calvin Schiraldi and Bill Buckner gave them a second chance.
Nothing in baseball is more difficult to analyze than the value of a manager. Bill James has given us the Pythagorean standings, and from that calculation on how many games a team won compared to its run differential you can quantify -- kind of -- whether a manager's decisions worked out. But no matter how you weigh it, and how much you want to attribute one-run wins and losses to the random nature of the sport, you have to admit that the manager matters an awful lot.
The 2013 Red Sox, who have responded to John Farrell after tuning out Bobby Valentine a year ago, are the Exhibit A of the moment. But look beyond Farrell and you'll see a lot of managers who made a big difference this season.
Managers set a tone to turn around moribund franchises and make the under-stress decisions that make the most of the rosters they are given. That is as true now as it was 50 years ago.
Leo Durocher was just the right guy to kick the Cubs in the rear in the mid-1960s, but had lost his touch by the time his team was poised to win in '69, when the Mets, skippered by Gil Hodges, wrote the road map for La Russa. But that's really ancient history. Consider the 2013 season.
Clint Hurdle had just the right touch to get the Pirates into the Division Series in the year that they ended a 20-season losing streak. The Indians won the AL's top Wild Card spot after they reached out to Terry Francona and his long-time lieutenant, Brad Mills. The Rays defied the odds down the stretch under Joe Maddon, as they've done so often since Andrew Friedman selected him to manage a franchise that was ready to try something different. The Cardinals built on their success in the first year that the untested Mike Matheny stepped in for La Russa.
This is the generation of managers that is coming up behind Leyland and the others who came to prominence as managers like Earl Weaver, Dick Williams and Sparky Anderson migrated from the dugout into the Plaque Room at Cooperstown.
Leyland will be badly missed when teams report to camps in Florida and Arizona next February. He will be on hand in some capacity with the Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., but Dombrowski is going to have to identify a new manager to sit in Leyland's office.
The game goes on. It always does. But something will be missing, just as it was when all the others -- including the likes of Cito Gaston, Frank Robinson and Tom Kelly -- were out of uniform for the first time.
"Every generation in our sport is defined by the people in it, and no people more important than its managers,'' Commissioner Bud Selig once said. "And our generation has been really fortunate.''
The results speak for themselves.