Leyritz: On your side or on your nerves

Saturday, October 17, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEW YORK -- Jim Leyritz is an acquired taste. But that doesn't stop ballclubs from acquiring him.

San Diego's prodigious postseason slugger suffers from an inflated opinion of his own ability and a severe shortage of tact. He struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then he makes loud noises as he waits in the wings for another cue.

He is a role player who fancies himself a regular, a supporting actor with the personality of a prima donna. He is called "The King," in part for his perceived self-importance, and he can be a colossal pain in the posterior.

Turpin High School's contribution to the big leagues would probably be out of baseball by now if he weren't so handy to have around this time of year. But Jim Leyritz is to October what George Patton was to warfare -- an uncommon clutch performer as indispensable as he is irritating.

"I'd be lying if I said he didn't get on my nerves once in a while," Yankees manager Joe Torre said of his former catcher. "But he did a lot of things to help you win games. . . He's a very confident guy, and he's very opinionated. Sometimes, when things don't match up opinion-wise, that's when you get the rub."

From Turpin to terrific

Leyritz secured a permanent place in Yankee lore with a three-run homer off Mark Wohlers that reversed the trend line of the 1996 World Series, but soon after sought a trade so that he might play more. He returns to the World Series tonight with the Padres -- his fifth team in two years -- intent on laying waste to the winningest Yankee team ever.

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"It is a great opportunity," he said. "We have proved everybody wrong so far since the beginning of these playoffs. We think we are going to do it again here. It will be extra exciting to be able to do it against possibly the best team in baseball."

Except when Kevin Brown is on the mound, the Padres would seem at a decided disadvantage against the Yankees. Two of their most precious position players -- eight-time batting champion Tony Gwynn, and 50-homer slugger Greg Vaughn -- are laboring with leg injuries, and there's not much speed in the lineup. Hard-pressed to manufacture runs, San Diego has a disproportionate dependence on the big blow.

This is what makes Jim Leyritz so valuable; why the Padres may not be as overmatched as it might appear. Some guys can't cope with the pressure of performing when everyone's watching -- did someone say Tino Martinez? -- but Leyritz loves it. He lives for it. He has already hit four home runs in the 1998 post-season, each enormous.

His surname is October

"It is hard for him to get on my nerves," San Diego manager Bruce Bochy said Friday, "when he is hitting home runs and driving in runs."

Leyritz arrived in New York Thursday night playing the hired gun to the hilt -- his shaved head covered by a black cowboy hat, his stride a swagger, his confidence as plain as the smirk on his face.

"It doesn't even faze him," said Gwynn. "He thrives on this. Like me, I'm kind of cautious. He just comes out in his cowboy hat and his big belt buckle and says, "I'm Jim Leyritz. I played here. This is the big show. I need tickets.' "

Leyritz operates on the premise that the squeaky wheel ultimately gets its way, and his postseason stats suggest he should have gotten his shot sooner. He has logged 44 postseason at bats in his career, and struck seven home runs. In a short series, no one's swing is any sweeter.

"He definitely wants to be at the plate with a big at-bat, and that's half the thing," said Yankees right fielder Paul O'Neill. "He wants to be in that pressure situation, probably because he's come through so many times. Jimmy doesn't mind seeing his picture on the back page (of the tabloids), either."

Leyritz has risen to the occasion so regularly that his heroics can no longer be regarded as an aberration. He is not on a roll so much as he is in a role: Mr. October.

"You can never look at numbers with Jimmy unless they're numbers from the postseason," Torre said. "Obviously, he has the ability to do it because he keeps doing it. If he beats us, he can't be a surprise."

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.