STEPPING TO THE FORE CATCHER JIM LEYRITZ HAS PARLAYED ONE HEROIC WORLD SERIES AT BAT INTO A STARRING ROLE WITH THE ANAHEIM ANGELS

May 04, 1997

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.

Should it?

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.

"He called me on the phone from the clubhouse during that game
in Seattle," says his wife, Karri. "During the game! The
playoffs. He was just screaming."

Leyritz was caught in a role he could not shake, forever Kramer
to someone else's Seinfeld. He was always seen as this squat guy
with the Popeye forearms, an undrafted kid out of Anderson
Township, Ohio, and the University of Kentucky who could catch a
little, play a little first base, maybe even third or the
outfield if necessary, nice to have around, but certainly no
marquee player.

He'd had a five-week stretch at first base in 1993 when Don
Mattingly was injured. He'd had a two-week stretch behind the
plate in '94 when Mike Stanley was injured. He'd caught for
Sterling Hitchcock in '95 and for Pettitte in '96. He'd never
had more than 303 at bats in a season. He'd had a lot of time on
the bench.

With no one else to argue his case, he had mostly done the job
himself. It hadn't been pretty. Speak heatedly and the New York
tabloids will print your words. They had printed a lot of
Leyritz's words. He had been portrayed as cocky and selfish,
looking for his own stats. Teammates had nicknamed him Elvis and
the King. Karri hated the labels, thinking they were more tools
for the tabloids.

"Do me a favor," she recalls having told Jim. "When you have to
scream about something, scream at me. Don't scream at the
sportswriters. It doesn't help." So he screamed at her.
Sometimes over that clubhouse phone.

"I did play the night after the Atlanta home run, though,"
Leyritz says. "I caught Andy. He pitched a 1-0 shutout. He
didn't shake off one pitch."

Going....Leyritz had become a New York guy, one of only three
Yankees to live in Manhattan in 1996, taking the Number 4 subway
to the Stadium, living the late-night life, dining at Elaine's,
playing softball for the China Club, the whole package, but he
still wanted to leave. He simply didn't have a way out. "The
minute he hit it, it freed us," Karri says. "I started crying
when I saw the ball go over the fence."

Jim had already handicapped his prospects with various teams,
looking for a place where he could play every day. First, the
Yankees had to decide whether to re-sign Girardi to big money,
thereby making Leyritz available for trade. If they didn't,
well, he thought he would get his chance in New York. Something
good would happen.

Karri remembers Jim's final moments as a Yankee. It was the day
of the team's ticker-tape parade through lower Manhattan. The
plan called for the players to ride on flatbed trailers. The
wives would follow in a bus. But Leyritz wanted Karri and their
one-year-old son, Austin, to ride on the float with him, to
share the experience.

Karri tried to be inconspicuous, but owner George Steinbrenner
noticed her before the parade began. He also noticed Leyritz's
cowboy hat. According to Karri, he told Jim to take the hat off
his head and the wife off the trailer. Leyritz shook his head
and said, "Uh-uh, this is my day." Other wives followed Karri's
lead and joined their husbands. Steinbrenner was furious. "He
had this woman from the front office write down the names of the
wives she saw on the trailers," Karri says. "It was ridiculous.
I mean, what was he going to do? It was over."

Less than a month and a half later, the trade was made. Leyritz
went to the Angels for two minor leaguers.

Gone. "He's really been swinging the bat," says Anaheim manager
Terry Collins. "And he's been handling the pitchers well. This
isn't the way we thought it would work out--we thought he'd get
a lot of at bats while playing a lot of positions--but it's fine
with me. He's our every-day catcher, but he also gives us a lot
of options."

"It's a whole different way of hitting," Leyritz says. "You can
afford to go 0 for 5. You don't have to be defensive all the
time, thinking that if I don't get a hit, I won't play for a
week. It's what I've always wanted."

A dramatic home run. East Coast becomes West Coast. New York
becomes Anaheim. There have been a lot of good moments, but the
best moments so far came on a two-game visit to Yankee Stadium;
Leyritz hit a two-run homer one night in a 5-1 win and followed
the next night with a ninth-inning, two-run, game-winning double
in a 6-5 decision.

So for now, the screaming on the clubhouse phone has stopped.
There's no more reason to be grumpy. Well, almost no more
reason. "Terry pinch-hit late in the game for me one night,"
Leyritz says. "I was steaming. I walked by him and said, 'Have
you ever heard of Mark Wohlers?' I probably shouldn't have done
that."

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Always solid at the plate, Leyritz has shown the Angels that he can work behind it every day. [Jim Leyritz wearing catcher's gear in dugout] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON When he connected with a Wohlers slider, Leyritz turned around a World Series--and a career. [Jim Leyritz batting in game]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)