It’s been nearly 12 years since Al Leiter threw a pitch in a major-league game, but the tall, lean lefty from Ocean County is as competitive as ever. “I take this very seriously,” says Leiter of his second career as a broadcaster. “I could mail this in, but I don’t want to. I want to be the best I can be.”
Leiter, 51, is more than a tough competitor. The one-time Mets ace is engaging, amusing and cerebral. He’s as animated off the air as he is when broadcasting games for the YES Network or providing commentary for the MLB Network.
The former Central Regional High School sensation is a natural on camera. His focus and preparation help.
“I always hear, ‘Oh, here comes Leiter with all of his notes,’” he says during an interview at the MLB Network studios in Secaucus. He’ll accept the ribbing if that’s what it takes to do his best.
It’s evident why Leiter is a success in the broadcast booth. But what made Leiter and his five older brothers, John, Kurt, Karl, Eric and Mark, such standout baseball players at Central Regional? (Here comes that word again.)
“I would say it’s due to competitiveness, grit, the desire to kick your ass,” says Leiter. “That came from my father, who was a World War II Merchant Marine and post-war army drill sergeant. There was a lot of ass-kicking in [our] house.”
Leiter and his twin sister are the youngest of the seven Leiter children.
“Maybe that’s why I’m so competitive,” Leiter says. “My wife [Lori] thinks I’m being a jerk sometimes, but when I play checkers, I want to win. When I’m playing cards, I want to win. The same goes for Wiffle ball.”
There is enviable talent in the Leiter bloodline. Three of the five brothers had professional baseball careers. Kurt Leiter honed his craft at Oklahoma State and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles; he pitched for four years in the minors. Mark Leiter also was drafted by the Orioles; he pitched in the majors for 11 seasons.
But Al is the family’s big success story. A major-league mound was his workplace for 19 years. He won 162 games, the most by a New Jersey-born pitcher. Leiter earned a World Series ring with the Toronto Blue Jays. He also pitched a no-hitter (in 1996) and won a second ring with the Florida Marlins.
“I had an amazing career,” Leiter acknowledges. “I never dreamed of anything more than pitching for a few years in the minors and maybe a cup of coffee in the majors.”
Those who watched Leiter post one of the finest New Jersey high school pitching performances ever in 1984 might have been less than shocked at his big-league achievements.
Leiter struck out 32 batters over 13 scoreless innings in that epic battle against Wall Township High School. Alas, the game ended in a 0-0 tie, thanks to a downpour. Although no pitch count was kept, Leiter thinks he threw close to 200.
That was before coaches were taught to guard their young players against high pitch counts. “If I threw that many pitches today, DHS [Department of Human Services] would come and arrest my coach,” Leiter cracks. “My coach, the legendary Al Kunzman, left me out there. I was striking out everybody, and the other guy, John Spinapont, was striking out a bunch. I remember the next day seeing the Asbury Park Press, and it had ‘32 Ks’ on the top of the paper with a story. I had no idea how many I struck out.”
Val Chevalier, who was cocaptain of the team with Leiter, is certain the pitch count was considerably higher.
“A bunch of us have done the numbers, and Al probably threw 250 pitches,” Chevalier says. “Al, as a young lefty, could be a little erratic. He had a couple of walks, and he threw a ridiculous amount of pitches. You’ll never see anything like that again.”
Chevalier was certain that Leiter would play baseball well after he turned 18, barring injury. “You knew that he was special,” Chevalier says.
Leiter has a more humble view. “I knew I was one of the better players from back in Little League, but I never thought I was King Tut,” he says. “I never thought I would become the next Jerry Koosman, Ron Guidry or Steve Carlton.”
While growing up in the little borough of Pine Beach, Leiter watched each of those stellar left-handed pitchers at their respective ballparks and on television. “What was great about where we lived is that we could watch Mets, Yankees and Phillies games,” he says.
Leiter came of age a Mets fan, but attended more Yankees and Phillies games. “You know how hard it is getting to Queens from where I grew up,” he says. “It was easier going to Yankee Stadium, and even easier to get to Veterans Stadium to watch the Phillies.”
The Yankees selected Leiter in the amateur draft in 1984. Three years later, he made his debut at Yankee Stadium and beat the Milwaukee Brewers.
“It was surreal,” Leiter says. “I would look around and see Guidry, Dave Righetti, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph—and Billy Martin was my manager.”
Leiter’s first time around with the Bronx Bombers was short lived. In 1989, he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. After battling injuries, Leiter helped the Jays win a World Series in 1993. He left Toronto as a free agent for the Florida Marlins in 1996. After winning it all in 1997, the Marlins had a fire sale.
“Anyone who was making any money was going to be traded,” Leiter says. “I knew my days in Florida were numbered.”
In a phone coversation with Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski, Leiter learned a deal was in the works that would send him to the St. Louis Cardinals. He told Dombrowski of his passion for the Mets—and 48 hours later, the team completed a deal sending him to Queens.
Leiter had the best years of his career as a Met, going 95-67 with a 3.42 ERA and a 1.300 WHIP from 1998 to 2004.
Health and maturation are among the reasons Leiter peaked with the Mets. “I felt really good, and I figured some things out,” he reveals. “I developed a better delivery…. I had a better plan, more confidence.”
Leiter is thankful for two World Series rings, but he wishes he’d won his third with the Mets when they faced the Yankees in the 2000 World Series.
“If we won game 1 of that series, who knows what would have happened,” Leiter says. “If Timo [Perez] runs that ball out; if Armando [Benitez] does what he normally does, maybe that would have made a difference. It was tough losing to the Yankees.”
Leiter returned to the Yankees for his final season in 2005. “I actually wanted to finish as a Met, but they had other ideas,” he says. “The Yankees won the division that year. It was a good way to go out.”
The transition to the broadcast booth was seamless for Leiter, who will appear on the MLB Network this season from 70 to 100 times and call about 30 Yankee games on YES. “A lot of former players try it, and some stick, and some aren’t cut out for it,” he says. “You have to have an opinion as a color commentator. You have to have conviction. You have to know when to shut up.”
He credits Yankees play-by-play broadcaster Michael Kay with helping him the most. “I was told to bring my 19 years of big-league experience to the booth and have fun with it.”
That sounds a lot like the game of baseball. Leiter has closed that chapter, but his 16-year-old son, Jack, a dominant New Jersey high school hurler, appears to be opening another. A sophomore at Morristown’s Delbarton High School, Jack Leiter already has scholarship offers from Duke, Notre Dame and Wake Forest.
“My advice for him is to have fun,” Leiter says. “I don’t care whether he plays baseball or not. I’m not going to push him. But he loves it. If he wants to play and succeed at baseball as much as I did, then that’s all that matters. Life is great in baseball, but there is more to life.” (Leiter’s nephew, Mark Leiter Jr., also is pursuing the baseball life as a minor-league prospect for the Phillies.)
New Jersey is a big part of Leiter’s life. He and Lori also have three daughters: Lindsay, 21, Carly, 20, and Katelyn, 11. Since 2009, they’ve enjoyed living in Summit; summers are spent mostly in Bay Head. “I love this state,” says Leiter. “You watch Comedy Central and you’ll hear jokes about New Jersey and how it’s not very desirable, but it’s a great place to live. When I moved back here, I couldn’t be in Ocean County or Monmouth County, since it’s too far from the MLB Network. I chose Summit, and I couldn’t be happier living there and being in New Jersey.”
Ed Condran is a freelance writer based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.Click here to leave a comment