Anguish Struck Out by Angel

Fastened to the left side of the baseball player's locker is a color photograph of an adorable baby boy. Alongside it is a hook, from which dangles a pair of white gym-shoe booties, size 1. Directly opposite the locker, facing him, is a notice board on which the night's starting lineups have been scribbled in felt pen, with his own name at the bottom as starting pitcher. Across the top someone has written a reminder: "May 8--Happy Mother's Day."

The baby in the photo died in April.

Midnight is approaching on Mother's Day eve. Exhausted from a hard night's work, distressed by his own poor performance, a resolute Mark Leiter moves on to the next day, same as he has now for many weeks, same as his wife, Allison, has. They will take tomorrow as it comes. A man asks, "Any special plans for Mother's Day?" No, not really, the 31-year-old Angel pitcher responds with a guilty expression, as though it was his fault, because come Sunday the team must leave town.

"How about breakfast in bed?" the man suggests.

An amused smile, his first since the game ended, creases the pitcher's face. He says, "Nah, Mark would just jump into bed and make a mess of the whole thing."

Mark Jr., he means. He is only 3. He, too, is a beautiful boy, and there is another photo, one of him beside his baby brother, above the bench of his dad's Anaheim Stadium locker, never far from mind or heart. His family is the pitcher's inspiration. It gets him through disappointments such as Saturday's, when he is roughed up by the last-place Oakland Athletics for seven runs. Every bad day like this is a danger to his career. But it's OK, because he has known far worse days.

Around the clubhouse, possibly no one is as popular, has such support. Teammates speak of it openly, of their admiration for Leiter, of their hope that he is in the Angel pitching rotation for good. Their manager, Buck Rodgers, shakes his head near the batting cage before a game and says, "We only really got the kid because we needed an extra pitcher and he had a live arm. For the last month, though, I don't know what we'd have done without him."

And that very first Angel game of his, well, that bordered on the unbelievable. On the inconceivable.

They say Lou Gehrig demonstrated courage beyond belief after learning he was dying from an illness that eventually would bear his name. They still tell of how Gehrig called himself the "luckiest man on the face of the Earth." But courage every bit as great was shown April 9 of this year, the courage of a young father, four days shy of his 31st birthday, who only hours earlier had personally overseen the cremation of his youngest son, a glorious child who never even got to have his first birthday.

Mark Leiter got on a plane, went right out and pitched a game. Pitched his heart out.

Then he and his wife acted quickly to establish the Ryan Leiter Fund, designed to aid families similarly affected by the disease, spinal muscular atrophy, that had claimed their boy.

Even after a game such as Saturday's, a defeat that weighs on him so heavily, a request for the fund's mailing address takes precedence. Leiter runs a finger across a shelf, knows he has the address here somewhere, is indebted to anyone who cares to contribute. Because, he says, "Every nickel we raise, it's another reminder that Ryan was here."

Ryan Leiter Fund, care of Families of S.M.A., Box 1465, Highland Park, IL 60035, for those in a position to help.

Mark Leiter is a sensitive man. Not so much on the field, where few pitchers are as intense, as in a zone. It is one of his strengths. It is what increased his worth to the Angels, particularly after injuries suffered by two other starting pitchers, Mark Langston and Brian Anderson, and an uncharacteristically poor opening month for another, Chuck Finley. Off the field, though, Leiter's intensity lessens. He worries. He scolds himself for not keeping pitches farther away from Oakland hitters, for grooving fastballs. Told that Rodgers emphasized the pitcher's having neglected to use all the stuff in his repertoire, for being a two-pitch pitcher, Leiter looks up with anxious eyes. He says, "Buck said that?"

More than two weeks have passed since Leiter's last victory. He is eager to please. No way the Angels had anticipated needing Anderson or Leiter so much. Leiter doesn't want to let them down.

"One of the guys made the comment that, hey, one of us was in triple A, meaning Brian, and the other was a released, unemployed player, meaning me. And it's the truth," Leiter says. "But I can't think that way now. I'm here and I want to stay here. I want this team to need me, to be able to count on me."

He has gotten on with his life, with his livelihood. Born in Joliet, Ill., he also seemed born to be a pitcher, much like his brother Al, who has pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays, and his brother Kurt, who pitched for the Baltimore Oriole organization a decade ago. But overcoming defeat is such a part of a pitcher's life. Mark Leiter has had four arm operations. He has been released by Baltimore, traded by the New York Yankees, dumped by Detroit. Two weeks before the 1994 season opener, he had no job and a terminally ill child.

Ryan was so sick. Born the previous summer, he was the new light of Leiter's life. Everything had been going so well. For the Tigers, he had won six consecutive games, from late April on. He even five-hit the Chicago White Sox with a complete game on June 3, maybe his best effort since breaking into the big leagues. Ryan was born and life was fine. Even an injured shoulder that prematurely ended his season couldn't undo what Mark Leiter had waiting for him at home.

Then the child was diagnosed with SMA, also called Werdnig-Hoffmann disease. It is a child's form of ALS, or, more commonly, Lou Gehrig's disease. It is invariably fatal.

On March 16, deep into spring training, the pitching-poor Tigers dropped a right-hander with a 92-m.p.h. fastball from their roster. Not everyone was sure why. Some said it was because a deadline was imminent at which time Detroit would owe him more money, but this seemed odd, in that Leiter didn't make all that much. And the team already had a staff of multimillionaires. In his heart of hearts, Leiter suspects they had doubts about his capacity to cope with his child's situation. He hopes that isn't true.

Rodgers says, "We asked our people if there was anything wrong with this kid that we should know about, because from the way he could throw a baseball, it didn't make sense to us that he was so, you know, available."

The Angels signed him on March 22. Leiter and his family took a motel room at the Jolly Roger, up the road from the stadium. It was temporary, a place for his wife and kids to camp until he made the team.

He accompanied his new teammates to Minnesota for opening day. Back in Anaheim, his wife went shopping. The kids came along. Allison ducked into a store for only a few minutes. Her oldest boy, Mark, came in and told his mother she had better hurry back outside. When she got there, Ryan was still. He had died. Angel officials put their player on a plane, met him at his destination, took him to view his son for the last time.

You do what you have to do. In his mind, Mark Leiter felt he needed to get back on a plane, fly to Milwaukee, pitch a game of baseball that he was supposed to pitch. He worked six innings. He struck out six. He gave up two runs. He stood upon a mound, and strode from it, with a sense of purpose like few had ever seen. As Rodgers remembers it, "It gave you chills, what that kid did that day."

It is behind him now. He can't think back.

Foremost on the pitcher's mind now is why his fastball let him down, why he can't put it where it belongs. A man mentions that its speed was fine, still right up there in the low 90s. But Leiter is inconsolable. He says, "Doesn't matter how fast it is, it isn't worth a damn if you can't put it in the right spot."

Rising from a chair, he flexes his right arm, examines it as though it has betrayed him.

"I'll get it back," he says. "I have to."

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