LEITER BROTHERS HOPE TO
TURN METS INTO A FAMILY REUNION
Improbably and imperfectly, the baseball lives of Al and Mark Leiter have finally intersected. Their lockers are side by side in the Mets' clubhouse at Thomas J. White Stadium, and the pitchers needle each other playfully, as brothers do. Mark was alone with a reporter in the dugout this morning, and Al popped in from the clubhouse with a message: we're stretching, and don't you know the scoreboard clock is slow ? Later, Al was late to a joint photo session."I've been sitting over there, waiting for 'Jerky,'" Mark complained. "It's a dream come true and I do this," said Mark Leiter, 37, who pitched for seven teams from 1990 to 1999. "Even if it doesn't work with the Mets, just being in spring training, it's an awesome feeling. You come into the locker room and say, 'Hey, brother,' and it's really your brother, not some old guy."
Injuries cost Mark Leiter three full seasons in the minors, and when he was ready to come back, in 1988, Al was pitching for the Yankees and persuaded them to give his brother a tryout. The Yankees signed Mark, but by the time he joined them, in 1990, Al had been traded. Their paths crossed in 1997, when they were scheduled to start against each other; Al for the Marlins, Mark for the Phillies. A rain out dashed the duel. In 1999, Mark joined a Seattle Mariners team loaded with stars. He was going to be their setup reliever, and he talked hopefully of facing Al's Mets in the World Series. But Mark pitched only two games for the Mariners. That May at the Kingdome, he threw an 0-2 pitch and felt intense pain in his shoulder. The hitter fouled it back, and that was it - Leiter's labrum was torn, and he spent the rest of the season recovering from surgery, embarrassed, feeling as if he let the team down. "I thought, 'Man, I don't want it to end like that,'" Leiiter said.
His goal was to someday get that third strike, even in a spring training game. He went to camp with Pittsburgh last March and struck out the first hitter he faced. "I could have walked away right then," he said. He nearly did. The Pirates wanted to send Leiter to Class AAA, but his heart wasn't in it and he asked for his release. He spent the year at home in Lacey, N.J., watching Al on television and spending time with his two children. He did not miss baseball. Al could hardly believe it. "He has enough money,he doesn't have to worry about working," Al said. "If it was me, in 5 or 10 years, I know I'd look back and say, 'God, why didn't I give it one last shot ?'"
Slowly, Mark warmed to the idea. He took his son, Mark Jr., 9 years old, to his fall baseball league and played catch with some of the other fathers. His arm felt terrific, he said, much better than he expected. After he took his son to watch Al pitch in Game 5 of the World Series, Mark Jr. applied serious pressure. "He started asking me: 'Why don't you try to play ? It'd be fun if you and Uncle Al were teammates and I could shag fllies in batting practice,'" Leiter said. Mark talked to Al, who talked to the Mets, who liked Mark when he was healthy and invited him to camp. Mark has enjoyed being teammates with Al, but he said he is still getting over his nerves, eager to make a good impression on a team with a crowded bullpen. Al knows there are many pitchers ahead of his brother, but he wanted to stress one point. "This isn't a charity case," Al Leiter said. "Mark's been down here for three weeks, throwing with me and Todd Pratt, and he looks great. Matt Franco caught him today and he told me, 'Your brother's stuff is explosive.' This isn't a fantasy camp for him. He's coming in with a legitimately big league arm."
For Al, 35, the reunion comes at the right time in his career. Before he established himself, Al said, he would have been distracted by having his brother on the team, worried he would be sent to the minors and spoil the feel-good story. Now, Mark's position is tenuous, and he understands it. He is willing to start the season with the Class AAA Norfolk Tides or in extended spring training, but he only wants to play for major league teams in the East, so he can be near his children in New Jersey. "I can pitch," Mark Leiter said. "I'm not going to waste my time away from my kids if I don't think I can pitch. And the way I'm throwing now, there's no reason why I can't pitch in the big leagues."
(Marke Leiter now pitches for the Milwaukee Brewers)
Tyler Kepner, The New York Times, 20 February 2001