Jim Leyritz remembers being grumpy last October as he went to the plate for the at bat that changed his life. This was nothing new. He had been grumpy, peeved, flat-out ticked off for most of his seven years with the New York Yankees. The World Series should be no exception.
For the first four or five innings of Game 4 against the Atlanta Braves, Leyritz didn't even sit on the bench. He lifted weights in the clubhouse, watching the proceedings on television. Not playing again! He put his aggression into the weights. Play me! Trade me! Do something! The usual refrain.
In the sixth, with the Yankees, who already trailed in the Series two games to one, losing 6-3, manager Joe Torre pinch-hit Paul O'Neill for starting catcher Joe Girardi. O'Neill struck out, and now Leyritz had to play for Girardi. Oh, sure. Same old thing. Had to play. Had to come off the bench, out of sync, out of the rhythm of the game.
In the eighth he had to hit. Same old thing. Had to hit. With one out, two Yankees on base and Atlanta still ahead 6-3, Leyritz's turn in the order came up. Braves closer Mark Wohlers, a guy with a 100-mph fastball, was on the mound. Strangely, this was a comfort. Leyritz had played in Game 1 against hard-throwing John Smoltz and felt he had swung well, timing the fastballs. His single was one of only four New York hits in a 12-1 loss. Maybe he could look for a fastball here and drive it.
Four pitches in, the count was even, two balls, two foul ball strikes—off fastballs, naturally. What next? All Leyritz could think was fastball, over the plate. An inside fastball would be a strikeout, simple as that. But then Wohlers came with a slider. A slider? Leyritz remembers starting to swing for the fastball that didn't come and watching this slider that didn't slide moving into the picture. His bat was already there and made contact, and the ball headed for the leftfield wall at Atlanta- Fulton County Stadium. "I didn't style or anything at the plate because I didn't know if it was going to go out of the park," Leyritz says. "But I also didn't run hard to first because I knew the ball was going to be either over the fence or caught. I just watched to see what would happen."
What happened was a home run to tie the game 6-6, on the way to an 8-6 New York win in 10 innings. The victory tied the Series and changed its course: Implausibly the Yankees would become world champions by sweeping four games after Atlanta had broken to a 2-0 lead. A home run that changed an address from New York to Anaheim. A home run that changed a life from spare part into cleanup hitter.
Going.... "Maybe an hour after the game, Torre takes me over to a corner," the 33-year-old Leyritz says from his new life as a .355 hitter with four home runs and 17 RBIs in 17 games with the Anaheim Angels. "This is after I hit the home run. He tells me he is thinking of sitting me down the next night. All year, the one time I played was when Andy Pettitte was pitching. He was 21-8 [actually 16-6] with me catching him. I think that's pretty good.
"But the Braves had hit him in the first game of the Series, and Joe says he thinks maybe the problem had been the way I called the game. He says maybe Andy is afraid to shake me off because we're friends. I can't believe it. I say the game plan hadn't been the problem in the first game, it had been the execution. We'll be better. Joe says he has to think about it. To this day, I don't know what he was doing. Was this a motivational thing? What? I don't know."
As Leyritz saw it, the immediate lowlight after a highlight fit perfectly with his career with the Yankees. What did he have to do? How many times did he have to prove himself? His other celebrated home run, to win a 15-inning playoff game over the Seattle Mariners in 1995, had been followed by a similar downturn. He didn't play in the next game.