His Kansas City teammates swarmed around him. The crowd of 24,332 in Royals Stadium rose to its feet. Dennis Leonard had just pitched a 1-0 three-hitter that was more than a mere shutout. It was the first sentence of an improbable and heartwarming comeback story, and when Leonard struck out Rance Mulliniks for the third out of the ninth, there were lumps in throats and tears in eyes, and a great big smile on Leonard's mustachioed face. "This was probably my biggest thrill in baseball," Leonard would say later. "I couldn't have written a better script."
Leonard had once been the most successful righthanded pitcher in baseball, a three-time 20-game winner. But in 1983 he ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee, and both his leg and his career were in peril. He endured four operations and countless hours of rehabilitation. No athlete in any sport had ever come back from such an extensive reconstruction of the patellar tendon. At his age—he's now 34—Leonard seemed an unlikely candidate to be the first. But last year he began his comeback in the minors and later snuck in two innings for the Royals. This spring he won a spot on the staff.
Leonard was given the start last Saturday afternoon only because Danny Jackson was sidelined with a sprained ankle. Leonard took the mound to a standing ovation from the fans and found a stiff wind blowing in from center. "It was my day," he said later.
It began shakily. Toronto's Tony Fernandez tested Leonard's knee with a bunt in the first inning. Leonard moved slowly, clumsily. First baseman Steve Balboni had to handle it alone, diving headfirst to tag the base ahead of Fernandez. An inning later the Jays tested Leonard's verbal responses: Jesse Barfield bounced a ground-rule double over the leftfield fence. Umpire John Hirschbeck, however, ruled it was a home run. Leonard howled in protest until the call was corrected by home plate ump Larry Barnett.
April 21, 1986
By the third, Leonard was in command, spotting his 87-mph fastball effectively. Leonard walked none and retired 18 Blue Jays in a row before Fernandez singled with two outs in the ninth. That brought out Royals pitching coach Gary Blaylock—to a cascade of boos. "I knew if I gave up another hit, I was out of there," said Leonard.
His wife, Audrey, was watching from the stands with other Royals family members. "In the ninth," she said, "I heard my oldest son [Dennis Jr., 12] talking with Jamie Splittorff, and they were saying this was scarier than the World Series. I thought, this is our World Series." The feeling on the Kansas City bench was just as emotionally taut. "In the ninth inning, I was talking to myself," said veteran second baseman Frank White. "I said, 'Go give him a hummer.' And then he threw the ball right by him."
When Mulliniks struck out swinging at Leonard's vintage-1980 fastball, the tension broke. Leonard had his first victory since May 23, 1983 and his first shutout since Oct. 2, 1982. He was engulfed by teammates just as catcher Jamie Quirk smacked the game ball into his glove.
Leonard brought the ball to Royals trainer Mickey Cobb, who had overseen every step of his long and arduous rehabilitation. Cobb, whose own legs were weakened by childhood polio, had ached at the sight of Leonard's atrophied left leg during his first post injury workout back in 1984. In the ninth inning on Saturday, said Cobb, "I was screaming for a strikeout." After Leonard handed Cobb the game ball, the two embraced.
John Wathan, now a coach but the catcher the night Leonard collapsed on the mound three years ago, said, "This is one of those games you will always remember. It's almost like a fairy tale. In another 10 years, everyone you know will say they were here to see it."
Comeback stories seemed almost commonplace last week. The box scores were full of players who had been given up for lost: Rich Dotson of the White Sox, Steve Carlton of the Phillies and Matt Keough of the Cubs all acquitted themselves well in starting assignments; Joe Sambito made four relief appearances with the Red Sox and earned a save; Rick Burleson of the Angels played his first games in three years.
But it was early yet, and Leonard spoke for all of them when he said, "I've come a long way, but this is just one start. I'll tell you after the year is over whether I'm back."