Kansas City's Leonard Never Quit on Himself : The Veteran Right-Hander's Comeback From Knee Injury Has Been Remarkable

Times Staff Writer

In 1981, Dennis Leonard signed a $4.5-million, five-year contract with the Kansas City Royals that made him the highest paid pitcher in the American League.

Nobody accused the Royals of gambling with their money. Leonard won 120 games from 1975 to 1981, more than any right-hander in the majors.

He won just 10 games in 1982, but got off to the second-best start of his career in '83. He was 6-3 on May 28 when he took the mound to face Baltimore. A fourth 20-win season and a first All-Star appearance might have been on his mind.

The fact that he would make almost $2 million over the next three years without throwing a pitch certainly wasn't.

In the fourth inning, as Leonard pushed off the mound to throw a pitch to Cal Ripken Jr., a tendon below his left kneecap snapped. Leonard went down "like he was shot by a sniper," according to teammate Dan Quisenberry. Leonard, 35, knew he was hurt but had no idea it would take four operations and most of the next three years to recover.

The Royals didn't see much of Leonard after that--he attended just seven games while he was injured--but he saw a great deal of trainer Mickey Cobb, working almost four hours a day to rehabilitate the knee.

And these days, opposing batters have seen plenty of Leonard. He has made a remarkable comeback. He's 6-5 but has the league's third-best earned-run average (2.60), has averaged better than seven innings per start and has allowed just 76 hits in 86 innings.

Saturday in Anaheim Stadium, Leonard will be trying to put history on hold when he's matched against the Angels' Don Sutton, who will be seeking career victory No. 300.

"I can't honestly say I'm surprised at Dennis' performance," said Dick Howser, Kansas City manager. "He was so darn good before, I just expected him to do well."

But no one expected Leonard to return to the Royals' rotation with quite the flair he did April 12 when he pitched a three-hit shutout against Toronto.

And it wasn't a fluke. Leonard took an 0.73 ERA into June.

"When I pitched two innings near the end of the '84 season, it was a goal realized," Leonard said. "A good year this season would be a goal satisfied. But I never dreamed it would start off with a three-hit shutout."

One might wonder why Leonard even bothered to dream of returning at all. What drove him during those agonizing hours of rehabilitation that eventually put him back in a position to earn the guaranteed $800,000 the Royals were paying him each year?

Leonard never had any doubts about what he had to do, though.

"I had to rehabilitate it anyway if I wanted to live a normal life," he said. "Maybe not as intensely, but I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was financially set, so the money wasn't a factor. But I had to give it my best shot, put in the effort and find out.

"Five years down the road, I didn't want to be second-guessing myself. I had preconditioned myself not to be let down. I figured, if I played again, it was gravy."

Since the World Series champion Royals already had one of baseball's best staffs, Leonard not only had to rehabilitate his knee, he had to fight for a spot on the roster.

"I came to the park early enough to see him after his workouts," Howser said, "but he's not the kind of player you have to pump up. I never felt like I had to say, 'You'll get it back.'

"The one thing I did tell him was, 'You'll have a heckuva time making this staff.' "

Leonard, who says he never paid much attention to spring training, worked harder than ever and managed to make the roster. Then, when Danny Jackson twisted an ankle two days before the season began, Leonard was promoted from middle relief man to starter.

Now, he appears to be a fixture . . . again.

"Up until the last two starts, when he struggled a bit, he was by far our most effective starter," Howser said. "His numbers in all the important categories, like hits per innings pitched, are still very, very good."

Surprisingly, Leonard says he's a better pitcher now than ever.

"I might have lost a mile per hour or two off my fastball," he said, "but all those hours of rehabilitation really improved my concentration. And now I'm not afraid to throw a breaking ball or a changeup when I'm behind in the count."

His perspective has changed, too.

"I won't say I took things for granted before. I think I always realized that one injury can end your career in this game," he said. "But now I have one bad game and I think, 'That's nothing compared to what I went through for the last three years.' "

Actually, Leonard has some fond memories of those years. It was a time of physical pain and emotional joy, a time when he got a chance to appreciate his family.

In many ways, those were his summers of content.

"I wouldn't have been disappointed if I didn't make it back," he said. "I got a chance to coach my boys (Dennis Jr., 12, and Ryan, 8) in Little League, eat dinners with the family . . . live a normal life.

"At first I missed going to the park and going on the road, but it was really a bigger adjustment to readjust."

Leonard has made it back and that was really all he ever wanted. He says he's at the "tail end" of his career and will retire if the Royals repeat as World Series champions.

"Winning is fun," he said, "but now, hell, just having the opportunity to win is fun."

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