LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland got the feeling his career as a baseball player might have been going down a dead-end street when the former Detroit catching prospect began getting called upon to drive his teammates to games in a station wagon.
Leyland was playing for a New York-Penn League team in Jamestown, N.Y., in 1965, when he first sensed the organization might see him as a better fit outside the lines.
"When the manager asked me if I'd drive the wagons," Leyland said, "I figured, you don't have players that are going to play in the game drive the wagons. They're resting. I'm fighting the deer on the road, and these guys are resting. They gave me some responsibility, so I kind of got a hint that they were thinking maybe this might be something for me later on."
Leyland played six unremarkable years in the minor leagues. He made his final two appearances behind the plate in 1970 for the Southern League affiliate in Montgomery, Ala., while debuting as a professional coach.
Leyland had no regrets after setting aside his mitt.
"I knew two weeks into my first spring training I wasn't worth a (darn)," he said. "I enjoyed it. I played hard. I always made a team. I don't know how I did it. They knew I wasn't going to complain, probably. They knew I'd throw batting practice."
The Tigers lobbed another opportunity to Leyland in 1971, when minor league manager Frank Carswell was fighting an illness.
"They asked if I thought I could manage the rookie league," Leyland said. "I said, 'I don't know. I'll be glad to try it.' So they gave me a shot at it."
Leyland won three league titles during 11 years as a manager in the Detroit farm system. He managed 14 years in the majors with the Pirates, Marlins and Rockies before leading the Tigers to the 2006 World Series after leaving the dugout for six seasons.
Former Tigers standout second baseman Lou Whitaker, now in his fifth season as a spring training instructor with the club, has fond memories of Leyland as his first full-time manager with the Class A Florida State League champion Lakeland Tigers in 1976.
"I remember, we were in this clubhouse, his love for the game, the way he coached the game, things that he really demanded in a way because he's a winner," Whitaker said. "He wants to win and there's nothing wrong with that. We knew that, and we expected that out of ourselves."
Andy Van Slyke enjoyed playing under Leyland in the Pittsburgh outfield for eight seasons that included three consecutive trips to the National League Championship Series from 1990-92.
"I guess in some ways, it's better working for him as a coach than it is as a player," said Van Slyke, entering his third season on the Tigers staff. "He's a better manager now than when I first played for him. He's got all that experience behind him."
And a gentler approach.
"He's kind of turned from a father into a grandfather," Van Slyke said. "Grandfathers are a little more patient with their grandchildren than they are with their own children. He's just as good and just as intense, but I think he's more patient than he's ever been, and I think that's a good thing."
Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline admires Leyland for his professional handling of players, especially when he is addressing their flaws.
"He's tough, but nobody knows it," Kaline said. "He never calls a player into his office. When he has something to say, he talks to them on the field, and I think that's a good way because that way he can get across what he wants to get across. He's not embarrassing anybody because he's talking to everybody. I've never heard of any other manager doing that."