4. Milwaukee Brewers
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An iffy rotation and lackluster defense need more than some comic relief
By Jeff Pearlman
He speaks in the past tense, as if the naughty boy is all grown up. Uh-huh. To enter the Milwaukee bullpen is to be subjected to a wacky world of fire and Scooby Doo trivia and sing-alongs and motorcycle helmets and anatomy-related insults. This is Leskanic's domain. His kingdom. "He's a weird dude," says pitcher Jamey Wright. "You have to see some of the stuff to believe it."
A couple of years back, while he and Leskanic were teammates with the Rockies, Wright arrived early at Coors Field for a Sunday game. When he walked into the training room, there was Leskanic, sprinting on a treadmill, dressed only in socks, underpants and a Steelers helmet. "That," says Wright, "was one of the funniest things I've ever seen."
Almost as funny as the time, in 1998, when the Rockies held a day to celebrate the Broncos' first Super Bowl win. As football players crowded the Rockies' clubhouse, swapping autographs and handshakes, Leskanic sat quietly in protest, Steelers helmet atop head. "Why would I cheer the Broncos?" he asks, half serious. "I'm a Pittsburgh guy."
Leskanic, primarily a setup man with the Rockies from 1993 to '99, was shipped to the Brewers for pitcher Mike Myers. Upon joining Milwaukee, he decided a fresh start was in order. He gave up uniform number 16 (worn in honor of boyhood hero Dwight Gooden) and asked for number 99. He was denied -- because it belonged to the bat boys. "Embarrassing," he says, smiling. "I must be pretty bad." He now wears 00.
With the trade of Bob Wickman last summer, Leskanic became the full-time closer and quite simply dominated. From July 30 on, he converted 11 of 12 save opportunities, using a mid-90s fastball and a crisp slider that was especially effective against righthanded batters (who hit .187 against him).
Teammates credit Leskanic's freak-boy alter ego as a key to his immunity to pressure. Leskanic held hitters to a .115 average with runners in scoring position, ranking second among National League relievers last year. "He steps onto the field, and he's a totally different guy," says teammate Ray King, a lefthanded reliever. "No more jokes. No gags. Just a serious pitcher with electric stuff."
Leskanic considers himself to be the world's happiest, most fortunate person. He spent a rough-and-tumble childhood in the projects of Munhall, Pa. (a small town 15 minutes east of Pittsburgh). His mother, Mary, was a cook at Falces Restaurant. His father, Larry, worked for a metal buffing company. There were never any thoughts of a major league baseball career. "I 100 percent appreciate wearing this uniform, because I knew from a young age that I'd work in the steel mills," Leskanic says.
The one thing Leskanic had going for him was athleticism. He was an undersized middle linebacker (he now stands 6'0" and weighs 186 pounds) and a heat-throwing pitcher for Steel Valley High. During his junior year, college recruiters began showing up. Leskanic spent three seasons at LSU before he was drafted by Cleveland in 1989. Even last year, the best of his eight major league seasons, Leskanic received little notice. That changed in January, when, as part of the Brewers' winter goodwill tour, he visited Clinton Middle School in Rock County, Wis. After speaking to students, Leskanic signed autographs. On the back of 10-year-old Brett Larson's T-shirt, he scribbled his name and wrote kick me! (two words that, as a lark, have accompanied Leskanic autographs on clothing for years).
A couple of days later Brett's mother, Lisa, wrote angry letters to the Brewers and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, complaining that as a result of Leskanic's gag, classmates had begun kicking her son.
Leskanic apologized, sent Brett a new shirt and vowed never to write KICK ME! again. With baseball (see: Sheffield, Gary) in dire need of clown princes and the world always looking for kicks, we can only hope time will change his mind.
Issue date: March 26, 2001