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For Leyland, win was lesson in not giving up

This was a victory for every baseball lifer.

Jim Leyland cried the day he had to release his first player. He was all of 26 then and managing Detroit's rookie club in Bristol, Va. And through 11 seasons in five different towns at different levels of the minors, and a dozen seasons more managing in the bigs, the memory never left him.So Leyland fought back tears a few minutes into Monday morning, nearly 30 years later, when he hoisted the World Series trophy above his head. His time in the game has been laced with as much bitter as sweet, and all of it came rushing back.

"This is for all the minor league managers, the guys in the instructional leagues. I'm a Double-A backup, flunky catcher. So," Leyland said, "don't give up guys."

The moment Game 7 ended, Leyland raced out of the dugout with both hands lifted skyward in celebration. The first player to join him, fittingly, was Bobby Bonilla, who was with him in Pittsburgh, where Leyland got his first big-league managing job and came so tantalizingly close to a World Series several times that you wondered how he ever got over the heartaches.

"It's such a grind to be able to capture something so special," Bonilla said. "That's why I had to give him such a big bear hug."

For a moment, Leyland's pencil-thin frame nearly disappeared in Bonilla's muscular embrace, a scene that framed his style of running a ballclub better than any other could. No manager is better loved by the guys who play for him, nor quite so self-effacing.

Leyland signed his first pro contract with the Detroit organization in 1963, and the day he arrived at training camp he looked around at the collected talent and knew he didn't have a chance. The best he ever hit was .243 playing in a little bus-stop town called Rocky Mount, N.C. Soon after, he offered to do everything - anything - to be able to hang around the game.

He got his wish. But like any love that outlasts infatuation, baseball gave him plenty to regret, too. Enough so that one season ago, he nearly walked away from the game.

As mightily as Leyland suffered losing the NL Championship Series three straight years while managing in Pittsburgh, what finally drove him out of that town was the realization he might never get the chance to do it again. He had settled into Pittsburgh, married late in life, started a family and made a home there. But first the cost-conscious Pirates' organization let guys like Bonilla and Barry Bonds go, and then they started cutting to the bone.

Leyland had hung on in the minors with teams so bad that a half-dozen errors and 10 walks per game were routine. 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 he let go of Pittsburgh, reluctantly, after the 1996 season, because he knew they had no chance to win.

What convinced him to come back, in Florida of all places, was the promise that owner Wayne Huizenga's deep pockets would restore that opportunity. He looked around the Marlins clubhouse in the spring, knew the talent was there and then set about melding it into a unit that would breathe life into the slogan, "25 players, one heartbeat."

The Marlins' Gary Sheffield, a quiet type, reminded players how much they owed Leyland in a closed-door, players-only session before Game 7, and afterward they went out and kept their part of the bargain. Meanwhile, Leyland played cat-and-mouse with Mike Hargrove, his Cleveland counterpart.