A Fight Against Pain And Doubt

July 29, 1985
July 29, 1985

Table of Contents
July 29, 1985

Tour De France
British Open
Dennis Leonard
Harness Racing
Bobby Fischer
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

A Fight Against Pain And Doubt

After three operations and two lost years, Dennis Leonard is still trying valiantly to get back on the mound

It's an afternoon in June, five hours before game time. The clouds over Royals Stadium are gray and heavy; Kansas City is in for one of those summer gully washers. The stadium is quiet, except for an occasional rumble from a semi heading east on nearby I-70.

This is an article from the July 29, 1985 issue Original Layout

Dennis Leonard, the Royals' 34-year-old righthander, is running alone in the outfield. He has been sidelined for more than two years as the result of a ruptured patellar tendon in his left leg. The patellar connects the knee cap to the top of the lower leg, and no athlete in any sport has come back from a patellar reconstruction as extensive as Leonard's. For two years, he has worked out by himself, day in and day out, four hours at a stretch. Being alone makes it easier to keep count. Three times around the park, three-fourths of a mile. Fourteen sprints from foul line to foul line, two miles. And 10 jogs backward, 90 yards each.

Working out alone is also easier on Leonard's mind: Being around healthy ballplayers would remind him of how far he has fallen. He was once the best. From 1975 to '82, Leonard won more games—130—than any righthander in baseball. He was a 20-game winner three times, which is still a Royals record. Now, three knee operations later, Leonard's claim to fame is that he's the highest-paid player not to play this year. His contract calls for $800,000 a year, guaranteed, through 1986. That means he has earned almost $2 million since his last pitch.

Leonard began throwing from a mound on July 1. If his reconstructed patellar tendon proves strong enough to withstand the stress of his power-pitching style, Leonard could be back working in the majors by September.

"O.K.," Leonard says to himself as he jogs on the warning track, "break it down into little compartments. Not so overwhelming that way." He speeds up. "I have to get to the 410-foot mark. C'mon. I have to get to the 385 mark. Don't stop. To the 330. Done! Only 13 more."

Mickey Cobb, the Royals' trainer, is watching Leonard from the dugout, bifocals on the edge of his nose, a notepad in hand. Cobb dotes on his players. When he took the job in 1977, he told them he would be available 24 hours a day, so his nickname is Dr. Clock. Cobb has a fondness for Leonard. "We go back a long way, to the minors in '72," Cobb says. "We're fishing buddies. And we share something else." Cobb, who was stricken with polio as an infant, points to his own weakened legs. "We understand these kinds of struggles."

Every afternoon when the Royals are at home, Cobb sneaks into the dugout, just out of Leonard's sight, and studies the pitcher. "I can remember the first steps Dennis took, when he first tried to run, in '84," Cobb says. "It was awful. The limp. The left leg so much smaller than the right. I was used to seeing a champion just glide through the motions. I kidded Dennis, 'You run worse than I do.' But I thought, 'Gosh. Maybe he'll be this way permanently.'

"But this," Cobb says, motioning toward Leonard, jogging backward in centerfield, "this is prayers answered.

"I always sit here in the same spot, in line with the mound. I think about the good times, the good years. Some people say it will take a miracle for him to pitch again. But I can see him, right now, on the mound. I can actually see Dennis pitching. His time is nearing."

May 28, 1983. Royals Stadium. Kansas City versus Baltimore. The game is scoreless in the fourth inning. Leonard, who had come back from broken fingers the year before, has a 6-3 record and is hopeful of making his first All-Star team. He has retired 10 of the first 11 Orioles, striking out four and walking one. The batter is shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. The first pitch is a ball.

Leonard remembers what happened on the next pitch. "When I came down on my left knee, it sounded like the Velcro strap I'd been wearing for support just ripped loose. But it was my tendon! My body went left, but I remember feeling like somebody had put me in reverse. I rolled over and over. The pain lasted a minute and a half. It shot up my leg. It hit me in the brain. My kneecap was off to the side, and my leg was straight. I thought, I've been hit by a line drive. But I remembered the umpire yelling, 'Strike!' So I knew that just wasn't right."

Audrey Leonard rushed to her husband in the clubhouse. She remembers the moment this way: "Tears were rolling down my face. He was as sweaty as can be. And he looked up at me and said, 'What the hell are you crying about?' Then he turned to [pitcher] Larry Gura and said, 'Damn. I had good stuff tonight. I was on a roll.' And I said, 'Dennis, maybe you'd like to cut your arm off and give it to one of the other guys.'

"We got in the ambulance, and I was sitting up front, giving directions. I could hear Dennis saying, 'Great. I had to get the one guy who doesn't know where he's going.' Meanwhile, Dennis is complaining that he's starving."

Leonard's injury was quickly diagnosed as a ruptured patellar tendon, and Dr. Steve Joyce, one of the Royals' physicians, repaired it the next day. But three months later, it was discovered that the tendon had deteriorated. On Sept. 29, 1983, Leonard was operated on by Dr. Frank R. Noyes of the Cincinnati Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center.

"The patellar tendon is the biggest and strongest tendon in the body," Noyes says. "In most cases, one surgery is enough. But half of his tendon had dissolved. It looked like cottage cheese. We were then faced with rebuilding the entire tendon. I warned Dennis that it would be a long process."

To strengthen the patellar tendon, Noyes used human tissue grafts from trauma victims and tissue banks. Leonard began his rehabilitation in December 1983. The knee was mending well, except for a fluid buildup. By June 2, 1984, Leonard was throwing from the mound.

Suddenly, he was hit with more bad news: The fluid in his knee—an infection—threatened the grafts. On July 31, Leonard underwent a second patellar tendon graft. "This time, we used three types of tissues to reweave the tendon—his own tendon, human grafts and a tendon from the back of his leg," Noyes explains. "We also found that his own patellar tendon had lengthened and that his kneecap was too high. We had to restring the tendon through his kneecap."

Noyes cautioned Leonard that it would take at least one year for the tendon to completely heal. And that he might never play baseball again. "We don't ever restore tendons to normal strength," says Noyes.

It's easy to feel comfortable around Leonard. He looks like one of the neighborhood guys: big blue eyes, a bushy auburn beard and cheeks that get red and round when he bursts into his boyish laugh. One of his favorite phrases is, "Everybody over to my house!" He rarely goes anywhere without wearing sneakers and one of the 100 baseball caps that are scattered about his bedroom closet. He also favors blue jeans; the back left pockets of his pants all carry the worn outline of a Skoal can.

Leonard is a pied piper, every kid's friend. Annie, the bat girl for the Lacy's Homes Little League team, is seven, and she has a mad crush on Dennis. She brings him strawberries from her grandmother's strawberry patch. He gave her one of his gloves, which she drags everywhere. Stephie, the little blonde next door, helps Leonard in his vegetable garden. "I make the holes," Leonard says, "and she drops in the seeds." Stephie, 5, is the daughter of former Royals pitcher Steve Busby, whose own career was cut short by a rotator cuff injury.

Some of Leonard's best buddies are the guys who work at Royals Stadium. On this Sunday morning, Leonard arrives with sons Dennis Jr., 11, and Ryan, 8. Both are in major Little League slumps, and Dad has promised to pitch batting practice when he finishes.

Leonard is greeted by Skip, the security guard. "Team sure misses you, Leo," Skip says as he unlocks the front door. "White Sox killed 'em." [The Royals had lost in Chicago the previous day.] In the clubhouse, he bumps into Tom, the cleaning man. Says Leonard, while sifting through the Royals' fan mail, "If these two guys weren't around, I'd never have anybody to talk to."

Leonard sets up the kids in the batting cage with their Big Barrel Bat, a bag of baseballs and a hitting tee. He retreats to the exercise room, promising to return in a few hours. He turns the dial to KFKF-FM, a country music station, and measures out a wad of Skoal. He climbs aboard the exercise bike, setting the timer to 20 minutes. Leonard stares at the clock on the wall and then looks down at the odometer.

He moves into the training room, pulling out three file folders containing his daily workout records—almost 300 pages—and begins recording today's ordeal. "I write big, all the way across and down each page, so it looks like I'm doing more than I am," he says.

Then it's off to the Cybex, the computerized machine that tests and conditions muscles. "I hate this thing," he says. "It's way too hard." He sets the Cybex at five different speeds—from the easiest range of "endurance" to the hardest, the "strength" range. He works each speed in varying repetitions.

Next, he straps a 13-pound weight to his lower left leg, lies back on a table and does 30 leg lifts, holding the leg up for four seconds each time. He then puts a chair at the end of the table, lies on his left side with his right foot on the seat of the chair and lifts the left leg under the chair 90 times. "When I first started," he says, "my left leg had atrophied to the size of my arm. I couldn't even lift two pounds without my left leg shaking."

He sets a one-inch-high block of wood on the floor, puts his toes up on the wood, his heels on the floor, and lifts up to his toes 90 times.

Finally, two hours later, he heads out to the field for his daily running routine. That will be followed by 50 trunk twists, 100 sit-ups and 15 minutes of tossing a ball against a wall.

"Most days when I look back at the workout sheets," he says, "I surprise the hell out of myself."

Cobb says that no Royals player has ever asked him for particulars of Leonard's workouts. Adds John Schuerholz, the Royals general manager, "They detach themselves. It's too real for them. It's also frightening. Some of the guys who are on the brink of making money must ask themselves, 'What if this happens to me before I sign a big contract?' "

A few opponents are keeping tabs on Leonard's progress out of respect. Detroit catcher Lance Parrish says, "It's amazing he's been out so long and is still trying. You've got to give a guy like that a lot of credit. He could sit back, take the money and run. I don't like facing him, but I hope it happens. I'll tip my hat to him and then take my swings."

But most of baseball doesn't know what Leonard has been putting himself through. "People think I've disappeared, that I'm out of the game," Leonard says. "I like that."

Leonard does most of his thinking when he's running. "Sometimes, I think about how I'm going to field my position when I come back. Covering first and pickoffs. And you know guys will test me with bunts. I think about whether my knee can take all the twisting and turning.

"But mostly, I visualize myself pitching, ready to start. I can see myself walking in from the bullpen. I can hear the fans in the rightfield bleachers yelling, 'Let's go!' And then, as soon as I go out to throw my first pitch, the visualization stops."

He has reasons for putting himself through all the workouts and mind games. "I don't want to sit around when I'm 50 years old and wonder if I could have come back," he says. "I don't want to say, 'If only I had been more faithful.' Besides, I feel guilty about the Royals' paying me all that money. I want to earn it."

Even in his lowest moment—before the final knee operation—Leonard did not come close to giving up. "I just love baseball," he says. "I just love the feeling I get whenever I'm pitching. Ever since I was a little kid, this is all I've ever wanted to do."

Audrey Leonard is buzzing around her kitchen, darting to the cutting board, where she's chopping broccoli; to the stove, where she's stirring baked beans; to the counter next to the sink, where she's shaping the hamburgers for tonight's cookout. She's talking all the while, barely catching her breath, but never missing a beat. Audrey is the perfect complement for the relaxed Dennis—energized and emotional.

They met in ninth grade at Lincoln Orens Junior High in Island Park, N.Y. "His mother had been my school crossing guard for years," Audrey says, "but she'd never told me she had a cute son who was in Catholic school." They stayed together through gold initial rings, graduations and mediocre varsity baseball seasons. "He was a dud in high school," she says.

Dennis, who wasn't drafted out of high school, had a partial scholarship to Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. On Dec. 18, 1971, during his junior year, he and Audrey were married. The Royals drafted him in the second round in '72. The two of them bounced around from Kingsport to Waterloo to Sarasota to San Jose to Arecibo to Omaha. In '75, he was called up to the big league club for keeps. They went through it all together, the bad times and the good.

And now, they have weathered the injury, which instantly turned Audrey into superwoman. She made treks each day to Kansas City's St. Luke's Hospital, bringing Dennis lunch and dinner from nearby restaurants. "I was the only person arriving with grocery bags," she says.

Each time the patient came home, she waited on him. "I had to help balance him so he could go to the toilet," she says. "I had to wrap his leg in garbage bags to keep the splints dry and then fight to get him into the shower. Every night, he'd roll into bed, and I'd swing the leg over onto two pillows."

She became a chauffeur. Last summer, she bought a van so she could haul Dennis around. She drove him to their sons' Little League games. "I'd set up a chaise longue behind home plate and put a cooler of beer next to him," she says.

She played nurse. "I had to learn to give him IVs at home," she says. "I sterilized everything a million times. So who's on the advisory board of the [Kansas City] Home Medical Support Services? Dennis—as a consumer!"

She pampered his beloved hunting dog, Skipper. The Brittany spaniel was diagnosed last summer as having arthritis. "Dennis couldn't walk; the dog couldn't walk," Audrey says. "I was carrying them both. I felt like a lunatic."

And even though she didn't want to, there were times she let Dennis go it alone. "Sometimes, he got so quiet," Audrey says. "I knew he was thinking about baseball. I knew he had to get out, develop other relationships and interests." She insisted he go pheasant hunting with his friends, crutches and all.

This spring, Audrey encouraged Dennis to work with the Blue Springs Little League. Dennis Jr. plays first base for Lacy's Homes; Dennis Sr. is pitching coach. Ryan plays third base for Ark Marine, Inc.; Dad is the first-base coach. Both sons wear Dennis's No. 22. The family is at the American Legion fields four nights a week and all day Saturday.

A couple of weeks ago, on Blue Springs Night at Royals Stadium, Leonard surprised the Little Leaguers and put on his uniform. When he popped out of the bullpen, everybody clapped. Except for Ryan. "Hey, Dad," he yelled. "I didn't know you still had a uniform."

"When he was playing, Dennis never knew what he was missing at home," Audrey says. "He was never close to Dennis Jr.; he never got to see him grow up. When he was laid up, Ryan would read to him on the couch. If something good has come out of all of this, it's that as a family we're closer than ever."

She can laugh now at the craziness of the past two years. "At first," she says, "I couldn't handle it. I had to keep the house. I had to keep the pool. I had to keep the yard. I had to keep the kids. And I had to keep him. By 10:30 at night, I was exhausted. At times, I wished it had happened to me.

"There were days he was the one who got me through it. I'd cry, and he'd calm me down. To me, he was killing himself. He'd stop and explain every exercise to me. I had never understood why guys fought so hard to get back after being injured. Now, I do. I don't know what I would have done to walk, but I could never have done this."

These are the most crucial weeks in Leonard's comeback. Dr. Noyes and Dr. Edward Grood, a bioengineer at the University of Cincinnati, conducted a comprehensive biomechanical analysis of Leonard's pitching motion, using mathematics and physics to recreate the thousands of pounds of force that will be placed on his patellar tendon. Then Bob Mangine, the director of rehabilitation at the Cincinnati Center, devised a series of weightlifting workouts—squats and lunges—to simulate pitching forces.

Mangine has also suggested that Leonard alter his pitching style—shorten his stride—to lessen the forces on the tendon. Mickey Cobb insists that Leonard pitch at a lighter weight—195 pounds rather than 205.

Will Leonard, who survived on fast-balls, sliders and changeups, be able to throw with as much velocity as he once had? Noyes isn't sure. The doctor has sent runners, pole vaulters and racquet-ball players back to work after reconstructive patellar tendon surgery. But Leonard is the first pitcher ever to have this surgery.

Leonard's progress has been remarkable thus far, and he is weeks ahead of schedule. "He's doing beautifully," says Cobb. "We're just waiting for time to pass." On July 22, 51 weeks after his last operation, Leonard was scheduled to throw batting practice in spikes.

If he continues to throw without pain, he'll report to one of the Royals' farm teams in August for a 20-day rehabilitation assignment. If he passes that test, Schuerholz says he will put Leonard on the 40-man roster in September.

Leonard is trying to be realistic. "If it doesn't work out," he says, "I don't want to feel as if I've fallen off the Empire State Building."

But he is scared. "I'm ready to accept being a middle reliever, at first," he says. "I want to be a starter, though." He pauses. "It will really kill me if I'm mediocre," Leonard says, softly. "I'll be the first one to tell them I'm through.

"I believe my leg is strong enough. I believe I still have a lot of pitches left in my arm. I believe I'm in the best shape of my life. But the most important thing is that I have the hope. I will not give that up."

PHOTOFOCUS SPORTSBefore he was injured, Leonard had won 20 games three times for the Royals.PHOTOMARK BURGESSLeonard has spent a lot of time going over X rays of his damaged knee with Dr. Noyes (photo above), who performed two operations. The drawings show the knee after the patellar tendon was ruptured in 1983 (left) and after Noyes reconstructed it with three grafts.TWO ILLUSTRATIONSKIRK MOLDOFF[See caption above.]PHOTOMANNY MILLANRaking in $800,000 a year doesn't excuse Dennis from raking the Little League field.PHOTOMANNY MILLANNo. 22, Dennis Leonard Jr., takes his swings.PHOTOMANNY MILLANNo. 22, Ryan Leonard, not much bigger than his glove, hangs in there at third base.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNAudrey and the original No. 22 have kept their chins up through it all.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNLeonard tests the strength of his knee; he has already proved his strength of character.PHOTOMANNY MILLANUnder Cobb's watchful eye, Leonard goes through the motions on a familiar mound.