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Broadcast blues

Is Leiter's work in booth coming back to haunt him?

Posted: Wednesday August 3, 2005 1:17PM; Updated: Wednesday August 3, 2005 4:02PM
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Al Leiter
Since a strong debut with the Yankees on July 17, it's been all downhill for Al Leiter.
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They say being on TV adds 10 pounds, but does it also bloat the ERA? That is a question that should concern Yankees pitcher Al Leiter, whose postseason stints inside the FOX network booth could be hurting his on-field performance. In a perfect world, I would have posed the question to Leiter, but a start against the Cleveland Indians last night, in which he got rocked for six runs in two innings in a 6-5 loss, prevented us from hooking up over the phone. So I put the question to a veteran major league scout and FOX Sports president and executive producer Ed Goren. As you might have guessed, neither of them are putting much stock into my Fritos-fueled hypothesis.

"It's bull----," the scout told me.

For the past two Octobers, I've watched in horror while a smiling Leiter explained pitch after pitch in painstaking detail and wondered alone and aloud -- isn't Al Leiter still playing? Helpful as the pointers might be for me, the home viewer, I wonder whether it could be costing him when he's on the mound. He still has to go out and face these batters -- which, in a sense, makes him even more relevant as a color guy. Says Goren, "Al has brought an element to our postseason broadcast that's unique."

Maybe Leiter's TV gig isn't as detrimental as I'm making it out to be. Just to be sure, I popped in a DVD of Game 1 of last year's Red Sox-Yankees ALCS. The matchup: Mike Mussina vs. Curt Schilling. Leiter should have had plenty to discuss. And he did.

Unlike partner Tim McCarver, who, when he's not over explaining the 6-4-3 double play, seems to pollute the airwaves with one malapropism after the next, Leiter actually picked up the baseball and showed you what he was talking about.

Rather than blather on in hopeless admiration of Mussina's deft curveball, which the Yankees pitcher used to retire his share of batters, Leiter demystified it, with his left hand flashing a knuckleball grip for the camera while explaining how a strong middle finger on top of the seam can give the ball "that great tumbling effect."

For me, this was great television. For the kid who wants to get to the majors, it's a $100 lesson. For Goren, it's the reason he made the hire. But what about the hitter in Atlanta or New York or Miami? "I don't think there's anything that Al describes in a broadcast that would give opposing batters an advantage against him," Goren says, "but if I were a young pitcher coming up, I'd take notes."

But who wants to give pitching secrets away while still active? Might Leiter be losing an advantage by being so honest? "Everybody has different grips, different styles, different idiosyncrasies," the scout says. "Al's grip is less important than his location."

Besides, he adds, Leiter's arsenal is pretty basic: "Everybody knows what's coming when Al's pitching," the scout says of Leiter's cutter. "The question is, Can he get it there? Can he pitch to the hitter's weakness with the bullets that he has right now?"

Like most pitchers his age, Leiter, 39, in the twilight. "There are just so many pitches in your arm," the scout says. "If you look back at cutter guys over time, you'll see that slow, steady decline -- and that's what happened to Leiter. But he's experienced enough to work through it and work around it. When he's had command over the baseball, he's been able to survive."

Leiter's career came close to extinction last month, when he was designated for assignment by the Florida Marlins only to be acquired by the Yankees. Leiter pitched admirably in his first Yankees start (giving up a run over 6 1/3 innings to help the Yankees to a 5-3 win against Boston), but has bottomed out since.

If no one wants to seriously take my theory that working in the booth maybe hurting his career on the mound, so be it. But if there's a major league hitter out there who might be scouting Leiter off what he says on tube, "let us know," Goren says. "We'd like to interview him."

So would I.

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