Leyritz homer means everything to his dad

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Jim Leyritz's hitting philosophy is borrowed from Tony Perez, and reinforced each time he phones home. His father is something of a stickler on the subject.

''See the ball, hit the ball,'' Don Leyritz said Thursday afternoon. ''That's what Tony Perez always said. Every time I hang up with Jim, I always tell him that.''

They began in the backyard out in Anderson Township, a small boy with a batting tee, and a dad with dreams. Then they fashioned a crude batting cage in the basement, and each evening young Jim would hit hundreds of tennis balls into a sheet in search of the perfect swing.

On Wednesday night, he found it.

Jim Leyritz lashed his way into World Series lore with a game-tying, three-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning. It completed the New York Yankees' comeback from a 6-0 deficit, and made it possible for them to beat the Atlanta Braves in 10 innings, 8-6. It was almost certainly the swing of Leyritz's life, and it made his father all misty up in the left-field stands at Fulton County Stadium.

''It was the culmination of about 23 years of sitting there watching him,'' Don Leyritz said. ''I had tears in my eyes.''

A dad only gets so many moments like this, and Don Leyritz had missed the last one. He fell asleep during the Yankees' 15-inning playoff victory over Seattle last year, and was unaware that his son had ended it with a home run until his phone rang the next morning.

''I never thought I would be able to top that home run,'' Jim Leyritz said. ''But this one did. This is the center stage. This is where you want to perform. To be able to do it here is an absolute thrill for me.''

The pride of Turpin High School was the toast of New York on Thursday. He put his bat on a Mark Wohlers slider and took his place in the pantheon of Yankee postseason sluggers - Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, Chris Chambliss and Bucky Dent. If the Yankees should win this World Series, Jim Leyritz will spend the rest of his life being congratulated for taking Wohlers deep.

''I'm not thinking home run right there,'' he said. ''I'm thinking I've got an opportunity to drive in one run if I get a basehit.

''I hit it, and I felt like I got it decent, but It wasn't one of those where I could stand there and watch it. I knew it had a chance, especially with the way the ball carries here, but it was a little bit colder, so it's not carrying quite as well as it usually does.''

Braves left fielder Andruw Jones went up the wall in left field, but the ball was beyond his reach. Leyritz clapped his hands as he rounded first base, but otherwise tried to restrain himself. There was still some more baseball to be played.

Reflecting on the home run Thursday afternoon, Don Leyritz was reminded of all the effort that had led up to it. Jim Leyritz grew up as a Little League teammate of Thom Brennaman, the son of the Reds radio announcer, and the two boys once appeared in an instructional show with Johnny Bench. Leyritz later played on powerful Midland amateur teams with Barry Larkin and Todd Benzinger.

His has not been an All-Star caliber career. Until Wednesday night, Leyritz was best known as the personal catcher of Andy Pettitte, the Yankees' Cy Young award favorite. He has replaced Don Mattingly as the senior Yankee in terms of service, but has yet to equal the playing time he had as a rookie in 1990, when he had 303 at-bats.

He is a .267 lifetime hitter who has been used as a catcher, an outfielder and at every infield position except shortstop. Though rarely for prolonged periods.

''I always said throughout my career - and I probably got in trouble for saying it - but I want to play every day,'' Leyritz said. ''With the numbers I put up as a part-time player, it projects a pretty good career if I had a chance to play every day.''

Don Leyritz has not abandoned hope on this score. He watches the Yankees games by satellite, and makes tapes so as to study Jim's swing.

''Whenever I call home, I don't have to consult him,'' Jim Leyritz said. ''He'll give you hints or ideas. He sits down in the basement at night, probably till two or three in the morning, watching tapes all the time. He probably knows me the best out of anybody.''

Earlier this season, Don Leyritz decided his son's elbow was causing him problems at the plate. He thought it was too nearly parallel to his wrist, and prevented him from driving the ball with his left shoulder. The younger Leyritz listened, and shortly had a three-hit game. He saw the ball, and he hit the ball.

''I'll take all the credit,'' Don Leyritz said.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 25, 1996.