Oakland Athletic pitcher Dave Leiper was talking to a writer in the visitors' clubhouse at The Ballpark in Arlington last Thursday when teammate Jeff Schaefer passed by and shouted, "He's walking on the edge of life everyday!" Leiper laughed. "These guys want me to spice up my interviews," he said.
The amazing story of Dave Leiper needs no embellishment. A 32-year-old lefthanded reliever, Leiper is pitching in the major leagues for the first time since 1989. Between big league appearances he has had open-heart surgery as well as two operations on his left elbow. He has also been let go by five organizations. "There were many times when I wanted to give up, but I kept pushing and plugging," says Leiper. "Other players ask, 'Why? How?' But I love the competition, and there's nothing that compares with competing in front of a crowd."
But how did he do it? "Persistence, I guess," he says. "I wanted to leave the game of my own accord. I felt I could work through the injuries."
But his injuries weren't baseball's garden-variety aches and pains. Says A's manager Tony La Russa, "We're talking about Dave's life, not about making a living, but a love for the game. You can't give him enough credit."
Twice during the '89 season, while pitching for the San Diego Padres, Leiper's heart began to spasm, pumping at a rate of nearly 300 beats per minute—roughly twice the rate a normal heart beats during strenuous exercise. Then, while in spring training with Oakland in 1990, it happened again, and he had to sit on the mound until his heartbeat slowed. "That one really scared me," he says. I After a battery of tests it was determined that Leiper had Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, in which the I electronic circuits of the heart are impaired, causing the rapid heart rate. Surgery was his only hope for a permanent cure. He had it on April 13, 1990—Friday the 13th. "That was a lucky day," he says.
After the operation doctors told Leiper he could pitch again, but his response was, "I don't care." During his rehabilitation, though, the competitive urge returned, and by August of that year he was pitching for Oakland's Triple A club in Tacoma, Wash. "I was constantly checking my pulse," he says. "It was a distraction."
The following winter Leiper signed with the California Angels, but three weeks into the '91 season he hurt his left elbow. He had arthroscopic surgery and missed the rest of the year. By the next spring he had signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, but five days into camp the pain in his elbow was so great that he underwent additional surgery. This time a tendon from his right wrist was transplanted into his left elbow.
Leiper missed the '92 season, then signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates and pitched last summer in Bradenton (rookie ball) and Zebulon, N.C. (Double A). Over the winter, to prove his arm was sound, he worked 70 innings in a Mexican league. The A's took him back this spring and assigned him to Tacoma, where he had a 2.05 BRA, four saves and 24 strikeouts in 26‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings.
Leiper was called up on June 5 and as of Sunday he had appeared in five games, thrown seven innings, allowed three hits, walked one and struck out five. Last Thursday, against the Texas Rangers, a 6-4 Oakland win. he retired all three men he faced in the ninth inning for his fifth career save, his first since 1988. He kept the baseball.
"I set a goal to get back to the majors, but that's over," Leiper says. "Now I want to have a successful career. I haven't stepped back to look at this, but it's no big deal."
Yes, it is.