McClendon finds his happy place
LAKELAND, Fla. – He wouldn’t change a thing. That’s something Lloyd McClendon can’t emphasize enough.
Nearly six months after being fired from his first managerial gig, Lloyd McClendon isn’t upset by the way his final season with the Pirates unfolded. How he was let go Sept. 6 with 26 games remaining on his contract. How his firing, evidence later revealed, put into motion the Pirates’ pursuit and eventual hiring of current manager Jim Tracy.
And he certainly wouldn’t change the opportunity to work under his mentor, Jim Leyland, as the bullpen coach for the Detroit Tigers.
“I’m totally convinced I’m in the right place,” McClendon said, smiling.
It’s a gray, unusually chilly day for this time of spring training, but as he sits on a bench outside Joker Marchant Stadium wearing a dark blue Tigers pullover top, McClendon’s disposition couldn’t be sunnier. He maintains his happiness in his lesser role, one that often doesn’t translate into an immediate return to the major-league bench. And he wishes nothing but the best for the team that no longer employs him and the players who in recent months have publicly questioned his managing skills.
“That’s only natural for those type of things to happen,” McClendon said. “It happens all the time. I don’t hold any grudges against anybody. I know how those things work. We weren’t successful there. When I took the job, I said I had broad shoulders and I was man enough to take the blame. Until my slate is clean and until the new season starts, I’ll continue to take the blame. That’s OK. I understand that.
“I say this all the time: I had good players in the sense that they gave me everything they had every day on the field. I was never disappointed in their effort. I know these guys well. I know sometimes kids say things they probably wish they could take back. That’s just the way it is. Live and learn.”
Effort didn’t translate into results during McClendon’s time with the Pirates. He departed with a 336-446 record and five losing seasons that extended the franchise’s run of futility to 13 consecutive years. He lost 100 games in his rookie year and never won more than 75 in a season.
“I did it the right way,” McClendon said. “The players I had got better, the team got better. I think I got better as a manager. My coaching staff gave me everything it had. We were just short. Listen, in this business, we all know you’re hired to be fired. Unfortunately, I came along at a time in Pittsburgh when we didn’t have the bullet. And my time was up.”
During that time, McClendon prided himself on diplomacy and tact. He sees no reason to change now. Offered the chance Friday morning to respond to suggestions that general manager Dave Littlefield orchestrated Tracy’s hiring with his firing, McClendon chose to take the high road.
“I couldn’t answer that because I have no knowledge of that,” he said. “I wish Jim all the best. I know him to be a good man, a good person and a good baseball man. And I have nothing against Dave. We are good friends. Dave and I still talk.”
McClendon, 47, prefers to look ahead to his new assignment. Two days after the season ended, Leyland accepted the Tigers’ managing job. He immediately asked McClendon to join his staff along with another former Pirates manager, Gene Lamont.
“I liken it to going back to school,” McClendon said. “You’ve graduated from manager’s school and now you’re coming back to get your Masters. Having the opportunity to work with Jim and Gene and continuing to learn my craft has been very rewarding.”
Even though McClendon doesn’t have a pitching background, he eagerly embraces his role as bullpen coach. He also doesn’t believe it will hinder his path back to the dugout, even if bench coaches and third-base coaches tend to get most of the managerial interviews.
“I think it’s only going to help,” McClendon said. “Pitching is the name of the game. If I can continue to increase my knowledge of the pitchers and how they think and go about their business, it’s only going to help me.”
Still, some habits are hard to break. A former hitting coach, McClendon spent much of Friday’s workout perched behind a batting cage, analyzing hitter’s swings alongside the Tigers’ new hitting instructor, former Pirates catcher Don Slaught.
“Mac is going to be a tremendous coach, but I hope he doesn’t coach long,” Leyland said. “I hope he’s managing again. He’ll be tremendous for us. He’s been in this seat before, and that’s important. When you haven’t been in this seat, coaching is different. He knows how to handle players, he knows all the aggravations (a manager) can have, he knows how tough the job can be. I’m sure he’s going to be a big help for me.”
Leyland’s wish for McClendon is that his next managerial assignment comes with a more talented team.
“Hopefully he’s in a little better situation (than Pittsburgh),” Leyland said. “That’s not a criticism. I just hope he gets a little more opportunity to be successful.”
McClendon, though, isn’t looking that far into the future.
“I’m very comfortable here with Jim,” McClendon said. “The atmosphere here has been great. I just firmly believe I’m in the right place.”