Jim Leyritz was New York Yankees reserve during the 1993 season when he grabbed one of teammate Danny Tartabull's heavy bats and took some ineffective hacks against the Baltimore Orioles' Rick Sutcliffe. When Leyritz returned to the bench, Yankees captain Don Mattingly was wielding the needle more effectively than Leyritz had the borrowed lumber. "Tell you what," Leyritz told Mattingly, "I'll go up there with my own bat next time, and if the first pitch is a fastball, I'll hit it out."
Two innings later Leyritz grabbed his Excalibur, went deep on the first pitch and circled the bases. When he returned to the dugout this time, Mattingly said, "You truly are the King."
Now a gnarled hero of the San Diego Padres, the King is still leaving the building. After homering three times last week in the Padres' four-game victory over the Houston Astros in their National League Division Series, Leyritz has hit six home runs in 36 career postseason at bats, combining Mark McGwire's regularity with Reggie Jackson's sense of timing: His 15th-inning blast won Game 2 of the Yankees' Division Series against the Seattle Mariners in '95; his third-inning homer gave the Yanks a 1-0 lead in the series-clinching Game 5 win in the '96 League Championship Series against the Orioles; his three-run shot against Atlanta Braves closer Mark Wohlers tied Game 4 of the '96 World Series and altered the course of that series in New York's favor; his two-out, two-strike, two-run pinch-hit homer to rightfield on a 98-mph blur from Astros closer Billy Wagner in Game 2 last Thursday tied the score in the ninth; his rainbow to left two nights later gave the Padres a 2-1 win in Game 3; and his homer on Sunday afternoon against Randy Johnson gave San Diego a 1-0 lead and the idea it would find a way to beat Johnson for a second time in four games.
Jim's wife, Karri, hates the nickname—"I tell him, 'You're not the King at home, and you still have to change diapers and take out the garbage,' " she says—but he wears the crown as easily as the Stetson that often covers his shaved head. Leyritz takes out garbage, he takes out the Big Unit.
The Padres, bolstered by the trade last December that brought them righthander Kevin Brown and the June acquisition of the quirky Leyritz and his acute sense of theater, clearly aren't the same thanks-for-coming, drive-home-safely team that vanished after three games against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1996 Division Series. However, the King and his court now must measure themselves against true baseball royalty—the Atlanta Braves—in this week's National League Championship Series.
The Padres don't have the Braves' pitching pedigree—who does?—but their results are beginning to look eerily similar. San Diego, which relies on pitching as much as Atlanta does, limited Houston, the National League's highest-scoring team, to one run three times in the four games. The back end of the Padres' staff, with premier closer Trevor Hoffman and underrated setup man Dan Miceli (who wriggled out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in Game 4), is better than Atlanta's. And at the front end San Diego has Brown, who's not only a No. 1 starter but seemingly Nos. 2,3 and 4 as well.
Brown started Games 1 and 3 against Houston, a feat made possible by a TV day off between the first two games and Brown's preternatural toughness. One day after vaporizing the Astros in the opener—Brown struck out 16 and allowed only two singles in eight scoreless innings—he was winging throws from the hole at shortstop during infield drills. Last Saturday, Brown had neither the same feel nor location while working for the third time in nine days, but he lasted into the seventh in Game 3, allowing just one run and Leyritz the chance for his daily dose of noblesse oblige.
If the road to the World Series always goes through Atlanta, as Padres rightfielder Tony Gwynn says, then at least Brown knows the off ramps. With die Florida Marlins last year he whipped Atlanta twice in the National League Championship Series, adding to his allure. San Diego general manager Kevin Towers, who needed to put together a team capable of playing almost until the first Tuesday in November, when the Padres' new stadium initiative will be on the ballot in San Diego, was in the market. He considered free agent Darryl Kile but quickly turned to Brown, a 200-plus-innings, 200-strikeout, Games 1-4-7-type pitcher who could also take pressure off the other pitchers in the San Diego rotation, Andy Ashby, Sterling Hitchcock and Joey Hamilton. Florida was divesting, and the Padres, who gave the Marlins only three middling minor leaguers, were unconcerned they might be leasing Brown for only one season.
Brown's $4.8 million salary turned out to be a bargain, although there were the inevitable ancillary expenses involved, such as the repairs on the clubhouse bathroom stall in Wrigley Field that an angry Brown refurbished with some seasoned ash. Brown, a tightly wound perfectionist, is batting about .750 against inanimate objects. According to Padres leftfielder Greg Vaughn, Brown's best fit of pique this season was wreaked at Qualcomm Stadium on a 300-pound Padres sign that hung between the San Diego dugout and clubhouse. Towers claims firsthand knowledge only of a mangled laundry cart. "He used a K-55 model bat that belonged to Eddie Williams," says Towers, referring to a little-used first baseman who was with the team for part of the season. "One of our guys said Brownie had more good hacks off the field with Eddie's bat than Eddie ever had with it on the field."
Brown's intensity is matched only by that of his pitching coach, Dave Stewart, who in spring training helped Brown develop a split-fingered fastball that had been in the embryonic stage. Brown, who won 18 games during the 1998 regular season, is a more complete pitcher man the one who stymied Atlanta a year ago. He now has four pitches—a slider, the splitter, his signature two-seam sinker and a high-riding, four-seam fastball thrown in the upper 90s. that in Game 1 shocked a Houston team accustomed to seeing Brown probe the shoe tops—and he throws them from a twirling, half- Luis Tiant windup and from a dizzying number of arm angles. "If you're asking if those are four strikeout pitches, then, yeah, I'd say he has four Number 1 pitches," Stewart says. "That's not just nasty. That makes you a freak."