CLEVELAND - Jim Leyland has waited too long. He has come too close. He has spent a lifetime in pursuit of a prize, and is determined to prevent that effort from being disparaged.
The Florida Marlins manager was therefore in a mood to rant Thursday afternoon. Weary of hearing that the World Series is a ratings disaster and an offense against nature, Leyland took umbrage to a new level in a press briefing before Game 5.
''I'm a field manager, and I usually keep my mouth shut,'' Leyland said. ''But it hurts me, to be honest with you, to think that the Cleveland Indians and the Florida Marlins worked as hard as we did to represent baseball, and it seems like we're getting cheap shots consistently; almost having to apologize for being here. I've been in baseball 33 years, rode the buses for 18 years, and I'm not apologizing for anybody being here.''
There was defiance in his voice. For weeks, Leyland has insisted that the Marlins' quest for a World Series title should not be seen as a story of his own unfulfilled dreams. Yet he takes criticism of that quest pretty personally.
''They keep talking about the ratings,'' he said, ''and I read the papers today and I was very upset about some comments along those lines. Because, basically, I'm sick and tired of hearing about New York and Atlanta and Baltimore. (Cleveland manager) Mike Hargrove said it best: 'They had the same chance that we did. We won it.'
''We are the teams that are supposed to be here, and it makes me puke when I continue to hear people talking (critically) about the Marlins and the Indians.''
Leyland can not dispute that NBC's numbers for the first four games of the series reflect record apathy. Those games averaged a 14.4 rating, a 25 share, and represent a 13-percent drop from last year's numbers for the Braves and Yankees.
What Leyland objects to is the perception that this year's contestants are somehow less worthy than previous series pairings. The Marlins are widely resented as nouveau riche, an expansion team that advanced to the playoffs primarily through spending. Their perceived legitimacy is further undermined by being the first wild-card team to reach the World Series.
But it goes deeper than that. Most of the criticism leveled at this World Series relates to the ponderous length of games, the paucity of drama, and the poor quality of play. Even Acting Commissioner Bud Selig says he spent much of Game 3 looking at his watch.
Selig cited the long intervals between pitches as his main annoyance, and said umpires must enforce existing rules to keep hitters in the batter's box and compel pitchers to deliver the ball promptly. Asked to respond to Selig's statements, Leyland initially rolled his eyes.
''I don't disagree with that,'' he said later. ''But I also think it would be good for baseball if we started earlier . . .
''We're trying to get the youth back involved, (but) for God's sake, most youth are sleeping by 9 o'clock. And, more importantly, so is the guy that works from 7 o'clock to 4 or 5 in the afternoon. The blue-collar guy is tired. By the sixth (inning), I think he's in la-la land somewhere. So I don't want to hear about everything that's not perfect about us being in the series. . . . The ratings of this World Series is not very high on the list of problems we've got in baseball.''
Asked to identify baseball's more pressing problems, Leyland declined. He has not spent 33 years in baseball to become a killjoy at its championship.
''We've had a couple of pretty ugly games here,'' he conceded. ''There's no question about it. I'm not defending that. I don't think the games in Florida were ugly . . . but the games here, for whatever reason, they got a little ugly.''
The main reason, of course, was meteorological. Too darn cold. ''I have to believe,'' Leyland said, ''when you're taking batting practice and you feel like you ought to be downtown Christmas shopping, it's not exactly good.''
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