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Catcher On The Rise : Jim Leyritz Was a Hero in the World Series for the Yankees, but Now He’s Happy to Play Every Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is part Pete Rose, part Steve Garvey, part Reggie Jackson and part Garth Brooks, but until this season Jim Leyritz has been a part-time player, a bat-twirling, clutch-hitting, tough-talking, cowboy-hat-and-boots-wearing curiosity.

Just what kind of numbers could Leyritz put up if he actually played a full season? Just how good a catcher would he be if he actually caught more than 40 games a year instead of playing five positions?

“I don’t know what I’m capable of,” said Leyritz, who spent seven seasons as a New York Yankee utility player before being traded to the Angels this winter. “I’m kind of curious myself.

“When I play consistently over a period of time my numbers have been good, and I think my stats project well over a full season. But I’ve never had the opportunity to be an everyday player.”

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That should change in Anaheim, where Leyritz, 33, is expected to catch 80-100 games and fill in at first base and designated hitter, getting a full season’s worth of at-bats.

“The Yankees can afford to pay someone $2 million to sit the bench,” said Leyritz, who is signed to a two-year, $3.95-million deal with an option for 1999. “The Angels are paying me to play.”

Leyritz often boasted in New York that he could hit 30 home runs and drive in 90-100 runs if he got 500 at-bats, but he never got more than 303--in 1990--in a season with the Yankees.

Leyritz’s best years in New York were 1993, when he hit .309 with 14 homers and 53 RBIs in 95 games and 259 at-bats; and 1994, when he hit .265 with 17 homers and 58 RBIs in 75 games and 249 at-bats.

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Projecting that pace over a season of 500 at-bats, Leyritz would have had 27 homers and 102 RBIs in 1993 and 34 homers and 116 RBIs in ’94.

But those projections dipped considerably the last two seasons, when Leyritz managed seven homers and 37 RBIs in 1995 and seven homers and 40 RBIs in ’96. With 500 at-bats, that computes to 13 homers and 70 RBIs in ’95 and 13 homers and 75 RBIs in ’96.

“But if I stay healthy and get the opportunity, the numbers are going to come,” Leyritz said.

Strange as it may seem, not playing every day might have helped Leyritz in postseason play, where he has been reminiscent of Jackson.

In 1995, Leyritz hit a dramatic two-run, game-winning homer in the bottom of the 15th inning to lift New York to a victory over Seattle in Game 2 of the division series.

And last October, Leyritz, a muscular 6-foot, 224-pounder with Popeye-like forearms a la Garvey, turned the World Series around with one swing of his bat.

With the Yankees trailing Atlanta, 6-3, in the eighth inning of Game 4 and the Braves leading the series, 2-1, Leyritz drilled a slider by Mark Wohlers over the left-field wall for a three-run, game-tying homer.

New York went on to win, 8-6, in 10 innings, then won Games 5 and 6 for their first World Series championship since 1978.

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“Not being a regular, I had to perform every time I did play so I would get the chance to play again,” Leyritz said. “Because of that, it was probably easier for me than most guys [to come through in the clutch]. Every time I played, it was a do-or-die approach, and maybe that helped me be a better hitter, especially with runners in scoring position.”

Leyritz called the 1995 home run “every kid’s backyard dream--I never thought I’d hit a bigger homer.”

But he did, last October.

“And that gave me more of a peaceful feeling when I left New York,” Leyritz said. “Though I never got to be an everyday player, I contributed to them winning the World Series. To me, [joining the Angels] was the next step. I accomplished a team goal; now I want to satisfy some personal goals by playing every day.”

That concentration on individual goals occasionally got Leyritz in trouble in New York.

He has always played with a bit of a swagger. Even as a rookie he compared his style to Rose’s, Rose having been his idol while growing up in Lakewood, Ohio.

Leyritz wiggles his rear end and twirls his bat before every pitch, a routine that has rubbed a few pitchers the wrong way--he was hit by pitches 22 times as a rookie.

“Once they saw I wasn’t trying to show them up or be a hotdog, they stopped throwing at me,” Leyritz said.

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He was also something of a renegade during the Yankees’ IBM executive-image era of the early 1990’s, when manager Buck Showalter thought it was hip to be square.

“I didn’t wear the blue suit and company tie,” Leyritz said. “Some of the older guys thought I was trying to buck the ranks.”

Leyritz once bought nine pairs of cowboy boots in Texas. He loved hanging out at New York Knick and Ranger games and, until 1994, was a regular at popular New York City nightspots.

“I didn’t do anything crazy, but I was young, in New York City. . . . I liked going out and having fun,” Leyritz said. “I thought, ‘What’s the difference of a guy going out till 3 a.m. and sleeping till noon, and a guy who’s in bed by 10 p.m. and up at 7 a.m. reading the Bible?’ They both get nine hours’ sleep and are at the park on time.”

In that context--and with Leyritz going through a divorce and complaining to reporters that he wasn’t playing enough--he arrived at the ballpark one day in May, 1994, and found a note on his locker that read, “There is no I in team.”

Leyritz blew up in front of reporters, and the New York tabloids played the scene on their back pages the next day. Three days later, Steve Howe admitted having posted the note but said it was a joke and the matter was resolved. But it might have induced some soul searching by Leyritz.

He had the best year of his career in 1994, remarried that December and has two children. He rearranged his priorities, cut back on the night life and felt more comfortable under Joe Torre’s relaxed regime in 1996.

Although he clashed with Showalter, Leyritz has even softened his stance on the former Yankee manager, who is now with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“I didn’t like the way he handled my situation, and that’s why our relationship fizzled,” Leyritz said. “But I learned last year that maybe it wasn’t Buck’s fault. The organization may have tied his hands.”

The Angels are counting on Leyritz to provide power from the right side, and although he is not an outstanding defensive catcher, he is considered a strong handler of pitchers and is expected to improve by playing regularly behind the plate.

“I’ll miss the New York fans because they were great and always appreciated what I did,” Leyritz said. “This is going to be a change for me, but it’s a good change. I’m looking forward to the challenge. It’s going to be interesting.”


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