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A Matter of Courage : Leiper Returns to Mound After Open-Heart Surgery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four years ago, Dave Leiper was lying in an operating room, his chest splayed open, his heart in the hands of a surgeon.

These days, he stands on the mound, his healthy heart leaping, and slices into opposing hitters with another brand of skilled precision.

Breaking ball low and away . . . fastball up and in . . . fastball on the outside corner breaking ball on the inside corner . . .

Most batters never make it that far. They’ve usually flied out or hit a roller to second. After a five-year hiatus from the majors--which included not only open-heart surgery but a total reconstruction of his elbow--the Oakland A’s left-hander is back in the big leagues in a big way. In 23 appearances since being recalled from the minors two months ago, he has an earned-run average of 1.56.

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Leiper was 9-3 with a 3.94 ERA during 155 major league games with Oakland and San Diego from 1984-89. Better than most, however, he knows there is only one really important statistic: Still breathing.

When doctors surgically “disconnected some faulty wiring” from his heart to cure Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (an electrical disorder that causes a rapid heart rate) in April, 1990, Leiper never even bothered to ask if he could play baseball again.

The disorder was originally diagnosed in the winter of 1988 and Leiper suffered two rapid heartbeat episodes when he was with the Padres in 1989.

“The second time almost knocked me out on the mound,” he said. “My heart was beating so fast, it was (in spasm) and I got real light-headed. I had tests and they put me on medication.

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“Then, when I was back with Oakland in spring training in 1990, I had another episode and that really scared me, because the medication was supposed to control it. That’s when we decided on surgery.”

The date of his surgery--Friday the 13th--did not bother Leiper. But he admits the normal trepidation surrounding such a procedure was intensified by the heart-failure death of Hank Gathers a few weeks earlier.

“Gathers’ problem wasn’t related, but it was a heartbeat abnormality, so it was scary,” Leiper said. “They took my heart out and cut some specific muscle areas and I wasn’t thinking about anything except getting through that and hoping for a normal life.

“I never even pretended to think about playing baseball again.”

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Eventually Leiper, who was drafted by the A’s out of Fullerton College, came to realize that his heart problem was no longer a problem. He had not so much as caressed a baseball in more than a year, but started throwing again and liked the results.

“Getting organizations to understand the nature of what I had done was a problem,” he said. “Teams thought I had bypass surgery or something. They had trouble understanding that the problem was corrected.”

Leiper persuaded the Angels to give him a shot and he signed a contract with their triple-A affiliate in Edmonton. Three weeks into the 1991 season, he hurt his arm and later underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery. He was out for the year.

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“Nuisance surgery,” he sniffed.

By the spring of the next year, Leiper was in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization, but five days into training camp his elbow “blew out again,” and he was back in surgery, this time to have a tendon from his right wrist transplanted into his left elbow.

“The Tommy John thing was just another delay,” he said, sounding very much like a man with the perspective of having undergone open-heart surgery. “Plus, it hurt all the time and I figured someday I might want to play catch with my kids.

“Part of the rehab was throwing and it felt so good, I decided to give it another go. But that was a whole new episode, because now everybody figures you can’t throw any more. It was almost a bigger stigma than the heart surgery.”

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The A’s, who started the season with one left-handed reliever, figured they had little to lose by giving Leiper another opportunity. He responded with a 2.05 ERA, four saves and 24 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings with triple-A Tacoma, so Oakland recalled him on June 5.

“They asked me about him and, to be honest, I didn’t say yes because it was Dave Leiper but because we had such a shortage of left-handers in the organization,” A’s pitching coach Dave Duncan said. “But I also knew about his character and his makeup.

“I always felt like he was great competitor, which is pretty obvious when you consider the desire he’s exhibited in working his way back after all he’s gone through.”

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Leiper, 32, never was a power pitcher, so the A’s weren’t all that concerned with his velocity. As it turns out, Leiper says he’s throwing harder than ever.

“My mechanics were never that great,” he said. “I mean that’s probably the reason my arm went bad to begin with. The time off gave me the opportunity to slowly correct my mechanics.”

The results have been impressive and Manager Tony La Russa, who makes sure all the pitchers on his staff get the chance to “chip in,” as Leiper puts it, is slowly working Leiper toward a role as a set-up man for closer Dennis Eckersley.

“Leiper has been brought into some very difficult situations and responded really well,” Duncan said. “He’s emerging as a key-situation-type pitcher.”

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From catcher Terry Steinbach’s point of view on the other side of the plate, the difference in the Dave Leiper he caught in the ‘80s and the one he’s catching now is more a matter of the right stuff than better stuff.

“The thing I’ve noticed the most is how he’s learned how to pitch,” Steinbach said. “When he first came up, he had a lot of trouble grasping the idea of how important it is to move the ball in and out.

“But he’s come a long, long way in that respect. And it’s really been fun catching him. He’s getting guys out on breaking balls and he’s getting guys out on fastballs. He’s getting lefties out going away and he’s getting them out coming in. He’s getting righties out away and in.

“And he isn’t afraid to try things, like maybe throwing all fastballs to a guy if that’s what’s working.”

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No fear. It could be Leiper’s motto this summer. It’s a courage born of survival and it’s helping him succeed again.

“Not much bothers me out there anymore,” he said, smiling. “I’m confident. I’m focused.

“When I was in the big leagues before, I really took it all for granted. There were so many things I could have done differently then, but unlike some of the guys I know from back then who are out of the game now and sorry they didn’t work harder, I have the opportunity to do it now.

“Maybe part of it is just maturity. But part of it is because I have no fears out there anymore. I don’t have anything to lose. Every extra day I get is a bonus.”

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