With career over, ex-hurler focused on Pro's vs. Joes,
Posted: Thursday December 13, 2007 1:13PM; Updated: Thursday December 13, 2007 1:13PM
Al Leiter's hand is coming towards the front of my face but all I can hear is the swirling sound of wind as he whips his left wrist inches from nose.
"Open your eyes," says Leiter, looking at me like a frustrated pitching coach. "This is important."
Leiter is in full uniform and back on a mound for the first time since he retired from the Yankees two years ago. He's standing in the middle of the Rose Bowl, certainly not your typical baseball venue but the stage for the third season of Pros vs. Joes, a reality show on Spike where retired pro athletes take on trash talking weekend warriors.
Before he attempts to blow past the Joes, however, he has chosen to tackle a far more impossible task -- teaching me how to pitch.
It was an act more out of sympathy than anything as Leiter tried to warm up before his outing with the only person on the field that hadn't touched a baseball since high school.
"Have you ever thrown a baseball before?" Leiter asked me after I chased down his second pitch and bounced a couple of throws his way.
"Well, sure, you know, I mean..." I mumbled before Leiter came over and took the ball out of my right hand. "It's OK," he said. "I'll teach you."
Leiter's generosity in teaching this "Joe" (and that's putting it kindly) the intricacies of the changeup and curveball certainly go against the spirit of the show he signed up for. This was his opportunity to get back at every beer guzzling, hot dog chomping, chain-smoking blowhard that taunted him during his 18-year career. Although Leiter does wish this chance would have come a few years ago while he was in the visiting bullpen in Philadelphia.
"This is as close as you're going to get to getting back at them on the field," says Leiter, who is the first pitcher to have defeated all 30 MLB teams. "You couldn't get an active athlete to come out here while under contract and really get after it. That would be the best. Having a guy that yells at you at Veteran Stadium, 'Leiter you suck!' and then say, "Come on down." That would be the best reality show ever, but this is pretty close."
As Leiter tells me to grip the ball with my middle and index fingers together across the seems of the ball and snap my wrist on the follow through like a rubber band ("You're pushing it to much like you're trying to throw a football," he says. "Relax your wrist and let it go.") he laughs off my suggestion that he should get out of the broadcast booth and get back into the bullpen as a coach.
"No way," he says. "I've been asked by a few teams and a few managers if I'd be interested in coaching, but that's not something I want to do. I mean I love it but right now I coach all the baseball and softball games for my kids."
It makes sense since Leiter's coaching style is like that of an encouraging father as he tells me again and again to raise my left arm and look at my wrist as if I'm checking the time before following through on the pitch with my right hand, which is raised away and above my head. "Let me show you again," he says, as he spits out his chew and takes the ball from me. "You're thinking about it too much. Watch me."
While it's not hard to listen to the advice of a two-time All-Star pitcher, Leiter thinks that some of the best coaching he ever got came from a manager that never even played in the majors. "Jim Leyland was excellent," says Leiter, who won the 1997 World Series with Leyland as his manager. "He was a pain in the ass and he'd always jump you if you made a mistake, but now in retrospect it was good for me. He admitted he wasn't a good player and he let you know that he couldn't do it but this is what he expected out of you."
After a few pitches Leiter seems to be getting into a groove as he stretches his arms out and licks his fingers before throwing another pitch. When I tell him he looks like he could still contribute to a Major League team, he shakes his head and admits there's a difference between him and the 40-something pitchers still throwing heat.
"I'm amazed when I watch my contemporaries that are still playing," he says. "With [Greg] Maddux, his whole mantra is deception, location and change of speed and the same goes with Tommy Glavine. [Curt] Schilling is still a power guy and Roger Clemens is the best pitcher who's ever played this game. He was always able to pitch with power even though his velocity was off last year, but I admire those guys. I knew when I hit 39 that it was over. Those little aches and pains didn't go away and all of a sudden I'd throw what I thought was a good fast ball and I look up and it says 90 [MPH] when it used to be 95. There's a definite curve to the line when you realize that your talent is subsiding."
That's all well and good, but what if he got a call from the Yankees and they needed an extra lefty in camp this spring? Would he ever consider drawing that line out a little further?
"I haven't prepared for it, so I don't know but I think with proper preparation I could do it," he says. "If Brian Cashman came to me and said, "Look, we'd like you to come to spring training and be one of the lefties out of the pen," it would take a good six weeks of throwing every day to get to Major League ready. I think I could do it, but really, other than playing catch with my son I haven't done that."
For now it seems a Clemens-like return is as impossible as the prospects of the "Joes" hitting anything off of Leiter as they talk trash from the batter's box; their words echoing around the nearly empty stadium.
"That's actually the worst kind of stadium to play in," says Leiter. "When you are playing at a big stadium like this and there are only 15,000 people in the stands because you hear the 10 drunk guys. The difference here is I get to pitch against those guys finally."