Growing up in New Jersey, summertime for Al Leiter was, as he puts it, “WOR, Bob Murphy, Lindsay Nelson and Ralph Kiner.” Leiter has vague memories of 1969, when he was nearly four years old and the Mets made a magical run to an improbable World Series title:
“Black-and-white TV, upstairs at a house in Pine Beach, my older brothers and my dad, all excited when they won.”
Tom Seaver, of course, “walked on water, as far as the Leiter family was concerned,” he adds. In 1973, when the Mets made their next trip to the World Series, Leiter was seven and “in the sweet spot of being a young boy, loving baseball,” he says.
No wonder Leiter, now 57, describes himself as a Mets fan “at birth.” Lucky for him, he eventually got a chance to pitch for the team he swooned over as a kid and he was so good at it he’s headed to the Mets Hall of Fame. Leiter will be honored Saturday at Citi Field along with Howard Johnson and broadcasters Gary Cohen and Howie Rose.
Leiter, no surprise, is thrilled to be recognized. “Ya think?” he says, laughing.
“I believe this: It’s always in that innocent heart of every Major Leaguer — once you sign professionally, you know it’s a job. But deep in your baseball soul, you have an affinity for the team you rooted for as a little boy.”
Really, Leiter did more than just pitch for the Mets — he was an affable star in Queens, one who lifted up teammates and fans and helped fuel one of the best eras in club history. Leiter, who arrived in a Feb. 6, 1998 trade with the Marlins, was a big part of the Mets return to the MLB postseason in 1999-2000 after the post-1980s drought.
“Short of winning a World Series, it’s the best seven years of my baseball life,” says Leiter, who did win the Fall Classic with the 1993 Blue Jays and 1997 Marlins. When it ended in 2004, he was disappointed.
Still, his name is all over the Mets’ record books — he’s still sixth in wins and only Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez and Ron Darling made more starts in Flushing. Leiter, who was 95-67 with a 3.42 ERA with the Mets, is one of only nine Met pitchers with more than 1,000 strikeouts.
He also authored one of the best big-money pitching performances in club history, quite a statement considering the Mets’ pitching bloodlines. In 1999, Leiter threw a two-hit shutout in Cincinnati in a tie-breaker game for the National League Wild Card berth, sending the Mets to the playoffs for the first time since 1988. When fans approach him, he says, it’s the game they mention most.
“It was just masterful to watch him carve up the Reds,” recalls reliever Turk Wendell. “Me, Johnny Franco, Dennis Cook, we were sitting in the bullpen saying, ‘We getting in this game?’ We were on call, but chilling out. That was an awesome performance.”
Leiter always embraced his inner Mets-ness — he loved meeting former Mets and was a mentor to younger teammates. He soaked up wisdom from Sandy Koufax, the Hall-of-Famer who grew up in Brooklyn with ex-Mets owner Fred Wilpon. Leiter still cherishes the day Wilpon gave him Koufax’s cell phone number.
Leiter especially loved moments with Seaver, a Mets broadcaster from 1999-2005. Leiter would seek out The Franchise on the team plane to talk pitching while sipping wine from Seaver’s vineyard.
They even had a ritual of sorts: Seaver would pluck the opponents’ lineup card from the back pocket of Leiter’s uniform pants on the days Leiter pitched. Then he’d go down the batting order with ideas: “The fifth inning on, he won’t beat me and he won’t beat me. Then he’d do the seventh inning,” Leiter says. “They were small, simple conversations that made sense.”
When the Mets strived to offer comfort or distraction to the families of Sept. 11 victims, Leiter was among those at the forefront. “Al has a great way of looking into someone’s eyes when talking to them,” says former Mets manager Bobby Valentine. “You feel like he’s looking right into your brain or soul. He was able to show the compassion that was needed in a very sincere way.”
On the mound, Leiter exhibited a repertoire of quirks. He’d chomp on his glove or stomp around, his emotions oozing from every pore. Those, along with his hitting — Leiter had a lifetime average of .085 — still make teammates chuckle.
“Everyone says you’re supposed to control your emotions; Al allowed his to propel him forward,” Valentine says. “I appreciated that.”
Says Leiter: “When you’re so locked in, you really lose yourself and you don’t care what it might look like. I guess I did some goofy stuff.”
All of the above might be fodder when he’s introduced Saturday. Franco is handling that. Leiter is the godfather to Franco’s youngest daughter and the two former Mets are longtime friends.
“Al,” Franco says, “is a guy you want in a foxhole with you.”
A word of advice to his teammates, though: Beware Leiter’s celebratory hugs.
“Al doesn’t know his own strength,” jokes former teammate Todd Zeile. “He’s just so strong and has no idea he’s crushing your body. And he’s got passion to go with it. It’s very unique to Al. It’s an Al-type of embrace.”
Source: Berkshire mont